Report Highlights Positive Progress on Global Access to Medications

Map of the world

Pharma and biotech companies have been developing cutting-edge treatments and medications for a myriad of diseases but, for some patients, getting those medications has become a herculean task.

In the United States, pricing has become a significant issue for many medications, such as life-saving insulin. While that lack of access to medication is a serious issue, particularly in a country as wealthy as the United States, there are many parts of the world where a lack of access to medications is a critical issue. But, that is a trend that is changing for the better. According to Netherlands-based Access to Medicine Foundation, 83% of the world’s population live in 106 countries that have limited access to medication.

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The lack of access issue is an old story. The countries examined by the foundation are home to much of the world's poor, who have limited or no access to “robust health systems,” largely due to the cost of medicines, lack of trained healthcare workers or inefficient supply chains. However, pharma companies have made significant progress over the past 10 years to address that situation. A decade-long analysis of companies' efforts to expand access to medicine shows the progress that has been made – but it’s a fragile progress. Jayasree K. Iyer, executive director of the Access to Medicine Foundation, said that a “retreat by one company, or a drop in healthcare investments, will jeopardize the progress made so far.”

The institute’s report tracked 20 of the world’s largest pharma companies, such as GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Novartis and Sanofi, from 2008 to 2018. The report found that some companies are doing business in “new, inclusive ways that aim to reach people on very low incomes.” In its analysis, the foundation noted that a few of the pharma companies are shouldering the most burden of medicine access. The analysis also finds clear evidence of progress, most notably in R&D, and in how companies approach access, the institute said. Overall, companies’ activity concentrates on a few diseases and countries, the institute found.

One way that companies have been increasing access to medication is through a change in the R&D process. Five companies are now systematically planning with those who have limited access to medicine in mind. Many of the products being developed under this strategy include vaccines for various common threats in these low-income countries, such as malaria. Several diseases have been identified as targets of urgently needed R&D in order to reduce child mortality. For example, the mosquito-borne disease was responsible for approximately 435,000 deaths in 2017, according to the World Health Organization. Of those, 266,000 deaths were children. As a response to that crisis, last year, Novartis announced plans to spend more than $100 million to advance research and the development of “next-generation treatments” for malaria. The Swiss pharma giant said it is contributing to the World Health Organization’s target of reducing malaria-related child mortality by at least 90% by 2030.

In its report, the foundation found that the priority for treatments for tropical diseases such as malaria has increased. The pipeline for these types of treatments has more than doubled since 2014, the foundation said. For NTDs (neglected tropical diseases), the number of companies contributing to the development of new medicines, diagnostics or other products has increased from nine to 15 since 2010, while the number of companies donating products for NTDs has increased from eight to ten, the report said.

The foundation said its report is a springboard for discussions on how improvements can be expanded across the pharmaceutical industry. On its website, the foundation said five billion of the seven billion people on the planet have access to medicines.

“Reaching the two billion people who still lack access to medicine worldwide is possible, provided we continue to build on what has already been achieved and are prepared to redraw and forge the path ahead,” the foundation said.

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