New products alone are not enough. Pharma can do more to halt COVID-19.
The COVID-19 epidemic will hit the most vulnerable people hardest. The pharmaceutical industry has a responsibility to do more than develop new vaccines and medicines – companies must also help achieve fair, global access to new products.
By Danny J. Edwards, Research Programme Manager, Access to Medicine Foundation
The COVID-19 pandemic is confirming many important truths – two of which stand out from the perspective of our organisation. First, any successful response requires the pharmaceutical industry to fully engage and respond with agility. This industry will play a critical role in saving lives first and foremost and in getting us back on our feet to restart a stalling global economy.
Second, this pandemic is going to hit the people living in low- and middle-income countries the hardest. With weaker health systems and greater threats to health, these countries face a tougher challenge from COVID-19. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is not over; malaria and TB remain some of the world’s biggest killers. All three diseases disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people among us.
The pharmaceutical industry is now working toward new treatments and vaccines targeting COVID-19. This is one half of the equation. When those new products leave the pipeline, ensuring they are made widely accessible will be the central issue. People in more vulnerable countries and communities must not be left behind.
Positive steps being taken
At the Access to Medicine Foundation, we work every day to stimulate and guide the pharmaceutical industry to do more for people living in low- and middle-income countries. We have been tracking and evaluating their actions in this area for more than ten years.
The actions for pharmaceutical companies to take during this crisis are clear: the development and equitable delivery of health products, done in an ethical and responsible manner. We have confirmed these priorities via a broad-ranging stakeholder dialogue and distilled them into the new analytical framework for the next Access to Medicine Index.
It is encouraging to see companies already taking positive steps in response to global calls for action, particularly to develop new medicines and vaccines. This is despite some counter examples, such as movements (now reversed) to extend or safeguard exclusivity rights for potential treatments. We are currently gathering data for the next Access to Medicine Index, which will evaluate and compare the responses of 20 of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Actions concentrated among few players
Despite rapid action from some companies, the fragility and reach of the industry’s ambition is troubling when it comes to halting the pandemic in low- and middle-income countries. Actions are concentrated amongst few players, repeating a pattern revealed by our research into pharma company responses to global health priorities. There had been precious little engagement prior to this year in emerging infectious disease research, and only a handful of large companies remain in the development of new antibiotics.
This risk of decline in the long-term engagement of the pharmaceutical industry leaves us all vulnerable. A larger group of companies is needed, both to address COVID-19 and to prepare for the next pandemic. Companies who have already left the field of infectious disease research still have important roles to play: in sharing their expertise and intellectual property, contributing manufacturing capacity, securing supply and affordability of their products.
Success means achieving global access
Halting this pandemic depends on global access to effective treatments and vaccines. More than 80% of the global population currently lives in low- and middle-income countries. The pharmaceutical industry should ensure that new and effective products are made available and affordable to patients, regardless of where they live or their economic circumstance. Fair allocation must be made amongst all countries. To achieve equitable global access at scale, pharmaceutical companies must be open to bold, ambitious ideas, such as the voluntary pooling of patentsWhen it comes to vaccines, global access is key to building herd immunity and eradicating the virus. When it comes to medicines, global access will help to free up beds in ICU wards. Both save lives.
When the goal of ending the threat of COVID-19 is achieved, the benchmark for success will not be an approved vaccine or therapy. It will be whether people received life-saving treatment regardless of where they lived or what they earned. If we can achieve this, as a global community of public and private actors, then we will be able to say we have kept our shared promises to the most vulnerable.