U.N.’s medicines report a victory for Doctors Without Borders, a blow to pharma industry

The highly anticipated report on access to medicines was released by the U.N. today.

Still hot off the presses, the report has garnered both admiration and scorn. The biopharmaceutical industry called the document a “missed opportunity” by ignoring the common issues that restrict access. For Doctors Without Borders, it was a major victory.

“[The report] puts forth actionable recommendations to help overcome the challenges that our medical teams have faced for decades – being left essentially empty-handed when the medicines, vaccines and diagnostics we need for our patients don’t exist, or are too expensive,” said Rohit Malpani, director of policy and analysis for Doctors Without Borders’ access campaign, in a statement. “[Its] global scope recognizes that today all countries face challenges in ensuring availability and affordable access to the medical tools that people need to live healthy and productive lives.”

The report calls out the inability of the pharmaceutical industry to meet global health challenges. It points to the lack of development for drugs to treat Ebola, the rising price of EpiPens and the shortage of yellow fever vaccines as recent examples. The tension between developing new technologies and the companies’ desire to protect intellectual property is doing more harm than good.

“With no market incentives, there is an innovation gap in diseases that predominantly affect neglected populations, rare diseases and a crisis particularly with antimicrobial resistance, which poses a threat to humanity,” said Malebona Precious Matsoso, director general of the National Department of Health of South Africa, in a statement. “Our report calls on governments to negotiate global agreements on the coordination, financing and development of health technologies to complement existing innovation models, including a binding R&D convention that delinks the costs of R&D from end prices.”

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Trade deals at times put business goals ahead of public health needs. That is music to the ears of groups like Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has campaigned for years against the high cost of medicines. One the group’s key concerns about the massive Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership are the intellectual property and patent rules that would keep the price of drugs high and potentially shut out generics.

A May report by the group criticized the biomedical industry for not spending enough money and time into developing drugs for diseases that are not highly profitable. It calls out the lack of affordable drugs and demands transparency by corporations to detail just how much it costs for research and development. The point is not to cut out profits, but to strike a balance between profits and health.

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Today’s report by the U.N. secretary-general’s high-level panel on innovation and access to health technologies is in many ways an endorsement of those arguments. It also champions greater transparency as a way to hold governments and the private sector accountable.

“The incoherencies between the right to health, trade, intellectual property and public health objectives can only be resolved using robust and effective accountability frameworks that hold all stakeholders responsible for the impact of their decisions and actions on innovation and access to health technologies,” the report stated.

The biopharmaceutical industry unsurprisingly did not take kindly to the recommendations. A statement from the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), an association representing the industry, criticized the panel.

“The HLP took a very narrow focus and ignored the full range of variables influencing access to medicines. We need to build on what works, we need inclusive solutions that bring the global health community as a whole closer to patients, addressing what matters to them,” said Eduardo Pisani, head of IFPMA, in a statement.

Both sides will continue to advocate their stances as world leaders meet for the U.N. General Assembly over the next week. They have the opportunity to review the report’s findings and consider adopting some of the recommendations.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.