One of the great injustices in the world’s global health system is the disparity in life-saving drug access between rich and poor countries. Expensive drugs may exist to treat HIV or cancer patients in America or Europe (where insurance companies can defray the exorbitant cost), but a patient diagnosed in Africa may be out of luck because the drugs are too expensive or aren’t available at all.
Over the last two decades, activists have put pressure on drug companies and global regulatory authorities to license expensive, patented drugs to generic manufacturers, lower prices, or find other ways to make them more affordable to patients in poorer nations. But outside of HIV/AIDS treatments, progress has been slow.
That’s why public health advocates have been impressed with an announcement by the big pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) made last week. The company said it would stop filing patents in about 50 of the least-developed, low-income nations, making it easier for generics manufacturers to provide the same drugs at a lower cost. In an additional 35 lower-middle income countries, GSK will patent drugs but it will license them to other generic manufacturers with only small royalties, it says.
Additionally, it said it will consider submitting future cancer treatments it develops to the United Nations’ Medicines Patent Pool, which negotiates agreements between drug developers and generic manufacturers to a larger group of 127 developing countries. According to Nature News, this program has previously focused on HIV/AIDS drugs, Hepatitis C, and tuberculosis treatments, so a company willing submit cancer treatments would be a big step forward. Cancer kills more people in the developing world than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis together, and rates are on the rise.
As James Love, a long-time advocate for improved drug access and director of Knowledge Ecology International, told Nature News: "Any one of these things would have been a big deal by itself. When you put them all together, it’s quite a strong statement ... but a lot more still needs to be done."
The move is hopeful, but it is just a beginning. For one, GSK sold all of it’s approved cancer drugs last year, so any treatments under discussion are early-stage and a long way from the market. Other companies that have bigger portfolios would need to follow suit in order to have the mark a major change in cancer drug access in the developing world. And the 85 countries affected by the GSK comprise only a small portion of people who can’t afford life-saving drugs, leaving out people in China and India, for example.
And as GSK itself notes, more needs to be done by governments as well. CEO Andrew Witty says: "Changes to patents and IP systems will not solve the multi-faceted challenges of improving health care in developing countries. In cancer for example, improving outcomes in developing countries requires better funding, improved screening and diagnosis, more cancer doctors, and better hospital services, as well as access to treatments."