Beyond COVID-19: learning the lessons on equitable access
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the power of science, as unprecedented R&D efforts have brought life-saving vaccines and therapies to market in record time. But it has also underscored the divide between rich and poor, exposing alarming gaps that still leave hundreds of millions of people without adequate access to medicine. The past three years have demonstrated that the need for equitable access to medicine has never been more important or more urgent. Pharmaceutical industry leaders and policymakers must now learn the lessons of the worst healthcare crisis in a century to tackle the chronic lack of affordable healthcare beyond the pandemic. Our 8th Access to Medicine Index finds that, while R&D efforts against COVID-19 have clearly paid off, sadly there has been little progress in addressing R&D gaps for other emerging infectious diseases and future pandemic threats. This is a major missed opportunity, given the great strides in vaccine technology that could help people worldwide.
My team has been monitoring the pharmaceutical industry’s role in global health for nearly two decades. By benchmarking leading players – based on actual performance, not just promises – the Access to Medicine Index provides a unique insight into how individual companies are performing.
It also acts as a roadmap to the tried-and-tested measures that companies can deploy to remove access barriers. The aim is simple: to ensure that people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) get the choice of affordable medicines they deserve, from vaccines against emerging infections to treatments for diabetes and cancer.
By taking the appropriate steps, pharmaceutical companies will not only help some of the world’s poorest people facing the highest burden of disease. They also stand to improve the sustainability of their businesses by opening up new markets for their products.
Overall, our latest insights show there has been progress in a few key areas, although the picture is patchy.
Encouragingly, non-exclusive voluntary licensing (NEVL) is now being used beyond products targeting HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis, with the inclusion of both COVID-19 therapeutics and a treatment for leukaemia. This is an important step forward since such licences – which allow generic manufacturers to supply patented products in many LMICs – are one of the most effective ways to get medicines to under-served communities.
However, while multinational companies have implemented more access plans and strategies in LMICs, the quality and geographic spread of this work still varies widely. Access strategies are less likely to cover low-income countries and plans for non-communicable diseases lag well behind those for infectious diseases.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only widened the inequities in global health, having taken the greatest toll on vulnerable populations in low-resource settings. Our latest Index therefore comes at a pivotal time in determining if pharmaceutical companies are now ready to put sustainable access front and centre in their strategies. The conclusion must be that – despite some progress – there is still a way to go.
Jayasree K. Iyer
Chief Executive Officer
Access to Medicine Foundation