UN needs to look beyond patents for improving access to medicines

Chief pharmacist Julie Zinihite attends to a man at the National Referral Hospital in Honiara, Solomon Islands. Photo by: DfAT / CC BY

The lack of access to medicine has become a regular feature of the health landscape in many developing countries. In the West African country where I’ve been spending time lately, stockouts of essential medicines happen regularly, not only in the public sector (where you might expect it) but also in projects well-funded by donors (where you might not).

The World Health Organization estimates that availability of selected generic medicines was only 38 percent and 46 percent in the public sector in low- and middle-income countries, respectively, and a full three-quarters of the world’s population (around 5.5 billion) have no access to proper pain relief.

Earlier this year, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines to assess this problem and come up with some solutions. Specifically, the purpose of the panel was “to review and assess proposals and recommended solutions for remedying the policy incoherence between the justifiable rights of inventors, international human rights law, trade rules and public health in the context of health technologies.”

But leaks from the panel’s highly secretive proceedings suggest that the secretary-general told the panel to focus on intellectual property and patents to the exclusion of other issues that hamper access to medicine — weak health systems, questionable government policies, a lack of health workers and a lack of resources.

The high-level panel has said that the leaks do not reflect the views of the panel, and that it is still actively working on the report.

Part of the problem, or the solution?

Far from being barriers to access to medicines, patents and intellectual property have improved access as new technologies developed in high-income countries have been licensed or donated to address those in low- and middle-income countries.

Over the past decade, governments across Europe and North America have devoted big resources to encouraging research on technologies for developing countries. In parallel, pharmaceutical companies have worked through a network of product development partnerships funded by governments and philanthropists to apply skills, expertise and knowledge from the commercial sector to diseases where there is no realistic prospect of shareholder returns. The quid pro quo is that the companies retain their intellectual property for use in markets where governments and insurers can provide that return.  

In 28 interviews on this issue commissioned as part of an ongoing series of reports on access to medicines on Health Issues India, with public health officials, academics or advocates in Brazil, Kenya and Senegal, only one of them (who identified themselves as an AIDS activist), in Brazil, identified patents as a problem. Several of them made the point that patents were not the problem or that patents were actually part of the solution.

A number of these public health experts said that patents are indispensable to promoting lifesaving medical research. If companies couldn’t protect their inventions through intellectual property laws, they’d have little reason to take the enormous risks involved in drug discovery.

Patents not only foster pharmaceutical innovation, but also inhibit counterfeiting and fake drugs, which are widely recognized as serious barriers to access to high-quality drugs.

Potential models

There are many other barriers to access to medicine. In Kenya, the two most common barriers mentioned were weak health systems and cost of medicines and doctor consultations. Other reasons included late diagnosis and substandard drugs.

In Senegal, three public health officials identified the cost of doctor visits or user fees for diagnostics as the major impediments.

The hearings that the panel ran earlier in the year in London and in Johannesburg, South Africa, suggest that it is ignoring new public-private agreements on access which might address future problems over patent-protected health discoveries.

For example, four pharmaceutical companies in Kenya are selling treatments for noncommunicable diseases at prices far below those charged in Europe and North America as part of major agreements with governments and health providers. These agreements — much lower prices for those who can afford less, combined with a long-term commitment to high-volume treatment — could be models for the future.

One example is AstraZeneca’s Healthy Heart Africa program that, in its first year, conducted one million hypertension screenings in Kenya, opened over 250 health facilities, trained over 2,600 health care workers across 21 counties, diagnosed close to 150,000 patients with high blood pressure and started treatment for 25,000 patients. The program aims to treat 10 million people with hypertension in Africa over the next 10 years.

Call for change

One of the biggest barriers to access to medicines is lack of resources, particularly developing countries’ own funding of the health of its citizens (which is where most of the funding should be coming from).

In 2001, African leaders met in Abuja, Nigeria, and pledged to allocate 15 percent of their national budgets to health. The 2015 DATA Report weighed in on the extent to which African nations are meeting their own health needs. Between 2011 and 2013, just eight of the 47 countries for which there was data available spent 15 percent or more on health: Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Swaziland, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia and Togo (based on data from the WHO). Twenty countries did not reach even the 10 percent level.

Until that changes, and the U.N. looks beyond patents for real solutions, access to medicines will continue to be a problem.

Access to Medicines is an online conversation to explore work being done to guarantee access to lifesaving medicines, where solutions are still needed. Over three weeks Devex, along with our partner Management Sciences for Health, will analyze and amplify the discussion on global access to medicines and examine the future of medicine access for individuals at the last mile, in a way that saves lives, empowers communities and builds resilient health systems. Join us as we look towards the future, tagging #access2meds and @Devex to share your thoughts.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • David J. Olson

    David J. Olson is a part-time technical advisor for the Palladium Group, advising social marketing projects in Mali and Zambia, and consults on communications with various non-governmental organizations ranging from the American Cancer Society to IntraHealth International and the World Health Organization. He managed social marketing programs for PSI in Zambia, Bangladesh and Paraguay, and headed PSI external communications at its headquarters. Starting his development career as a Peace Corps agricultural education volunteer in Togo, he has more than 30 years of experience in strategic communications, policy and program implementation on five continents and in four languages. Follow him on Twitter @davidjolson and check out his website www.olsonglobalcom.com.