By Viveka Guzman, Key Correspondent for the Irish Forum for Global Health
The 3rd annual conference on Access to Medicines Ireland took place on April 16th in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. Speakers delivered diverse perspectives on the barriers and opportunities available to improve access to medicines by borrowing examples and statistics from their own experiences as pharmaco-economists, policy-makers, NGOs, health-care providers and patients.
Several issues were discussed about the role each one of these stakeholders plays in setting the scene for access to medicines, and on strategies for improvement. The onus now rests on pharmaceutical companies to step up to the plate. However, it was both illuminating and disheartening that no company accepted the invitation to put industry speakers forward in representation of their interests.
I believe this casts a shadow over the opportunities to find sustainable solutions to improve the current constraints in access to medicines worldwide, which means nearly two billion people could continue to lack access to the basic medicines needed to prevent suffering and treat disease.
Of course, despite the lack of industry representation, the conversation must go on. According to Dimitri Eynikel, Advocacy Advisor for Medicins Sans Frontiers Europe, developing drugs is not as expensive as pharma would have us believe. This is true in part because much of the research and development for a new drug is funded from public research paid by taxpayers.
Extending the life of a patent, with little or no-benefit to the patient, constitutes yet another profit-maximising strategy used by pharmaceutical companies and it was was highlighted by Professor Michael Barry during his keynote address. Moreover, in the past, pharmaceutical companies have put heavy pressure on governments that go against their corporate interests.
In real life, the conversation cannot go on without input from industry. However, we must remember that other influences exist in the access to medicines debate, such as, the voices of patients advocating for their basic human rights, as well as the integration of sound scientific evidence as a result of innovation in drugs development.
One necessary step is to demand transparency from pharmaceutical companies. If the price of research and development is as high as they claim, then freedom of information policies can make it easier for multidisciplinary teams to deliver innovative solutions that benefit all stakeholders. Freedom of information can also level the playing field and make it possible for governments to negotiate on fair pricing.
The World Health Organization is set to meet in Italy in May to discuss a resolution calling for greater transparency in pharma research and development costs, in addition to price-profiling. What is clear is that cost-cutting should not come at the expense of human lives.
We are open for dialogue with pharmaceutical companies, but it is important to recognise that they don’t hold all the cards in this debate. It’s time for a concerted global effort, for governments to get involved and support this initiative by supporting international initiatives and advocating for better access to medicines worldwide.