It’s a chastening fact that more than two billion out of the seven billion people in the world don’t have regular access to medicines, leaving them vulnerable to disease and avoidable death. While most common diseases are treatable, in the developing world many lack access to diagnostics, vaccines and pharmaceutical treatments because they are either unaffordable or simply unavailable.
The good news is that, since the launch of the Access to Medicines Index in 2008, the industry has stepped up its efforts to improve matters. It’s paying more attention to socio-economic factors and we have seen the advent of country-specific pricing, tailored to the respective nation’s ability to pay. And, since 2012, the number of products in the development pipeline appropriate for developing countries has grown by 47.
According to this year’s Index report, more companies among big pharma’s top 20 (which the Index monitors) are experimenting with innovative, access-oriented business models, and companies are granting more licences to companies in developing countries to make and distribute generic versions of their medicines. Corporate policies and activities to improve access to medicine are also becoming more developed.
Through a weighted analysis, the Access to Medicine Index captures and compares company data across 47 diseases and 106 countries, focusing on four aspects of company action: commitment, transparency, performance and innovation.
Highlights on the innovation front include J&J’s development of Sirturo (bedaquiline) for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, the first new drug for the disease in 40 years, and Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) – a ground-breaking pill from Gilead that can cure hepatitis C; a high-burden disease in developing countries. Gilead deservedly wins points for allowing distribution of generic versions of Sovaldi in more than 91 developing countries.
Index founder, Wim Leereveld observed at the launch of this year’s biennial Index report: “No company is in the top five in all areas we analyse, but the leaders tend to perform well across most of them, even though they differ in their focus. Top performers innovate constantly, and usually have to innovate in several areas to maintain their position.”
GSK, which is closing in on launching the world’s first anti-malaria vaccine, topped the Index for the fourth time. The company has said it’s prepared to sell the vaccine for just five per cent above cost price and invest the profit on further research into tropical diseases. But even GSK’s CEO, Sir Andrew Witty admitted there was more they could do. “This year, the index is tougher than ever,” he said. “It challenges us to think harder about how we drive innovation and enable access to our products. We will continue to push ourselves … to make sure our medicines and vaccines reach more people.”
It’s a challenge that, by implication, the whole industry needs to address further and faster.
By Peter Coë