Plea for treaty on drug research

medical lab technician working for the TB Alliance
Copyright: Atul Loke/Panos

Speed read

  • Medical industry research ignores less profitable areas
  • Governments could pool funding and direct R&D efforts
  • Result would be cheaper drugs and more neglected disease research

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[LONDON] Health activists are demanding an international treaty on medical research and development (R&D) to speed up the creation of cheap medicines.

Outdated intellectual property (IP) regimes and market distortions hold back research on new medicines, activists said at a meeting of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines, held on 10 March in London, United Kingdom.

“We do our R&D in an IP system that has created a hugely wasteful process,” said Els Torreele, the director of the Access to Essential Medicines Initiative of grant-making network the Open Society Foundations. “We could do so much better if we weren’t limiting ourselves to only innovating what we can also patent.”

“We could do so much better if we weren’t limiting ourselves to only innovating what we can also patent.”

Els Torreele, Access to Essential Medicines Initiative

The medical industry focuses on creating patentable compounds that can be developed into products or sold for a good price, which channels research spending — both public and private — into just a few highly profitable areas, the event heard.

It also means medicines for small markets or diseases affecting poor people are less likely to be researched, attendees said.

An international agreement on medical R&D funding could help separate the cost of research from the final product’s price, resulting in cheaper drugs and more research on neglected diseases, said Tim Reed, the executive director of Netherlands-based NGO Health Action International.

This would entail governments pooling funding for innovation and taking a leading role in steering research efforts, rather than relying on companies to make these decisions, the panel heard.

“This would get rid of the situation where medicine is only developed if [it can be] sold at high prices,” Reed told the UN panel.

But pharmaceutical industry speakers, representing companies including Pfizer, Eli Lilly and Novartis, opposed the idea of an international agreement to control drug R&D spending. A spokesman for Eli Lilly said this would be “unconstructive”.

He pointed out that companies run compassionate programmes under which they distribute free medicines to health systems in poor countries.

But these programmes do not reach far enough, said Hans Hogerzeil, the chairman of The Lancet Commission on Essential Medicines Policies, a group of specialists tasked by The Lancet medical journal to offer recommendations for global essential medicine policies.

Hogerzeil told the panel that 110 million people in developing countries need insulin, but only 50,000 are covered by compassionate programmes, for example.

The third Sustainable Development Goal says that every person on the planet has the right to healthcare and medicine, said Ruth Dreifuss, the UN panel’s cochair — which puts pressure on international governance bodies to lower prices.

The hearing was part of a UN initiative to develop international medical innovation policy to ensure more life-saving medicines reach the poorest people in the world. A second meeting of the panel will take place tomorrow in Johannesburg, South Africa