Don't Let the United Nations Impede Disease-Fighters

Don't Let the United Nations Impede Disease-Fighters
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Officials from the world's leading development and public health organizations, in addition to representatives from the world's top pharmaceutical companies, descended upon Geneva from April 19-22 to participate in the Neglected Tropical Diseases 2017 Summit. The purpose of the gathering in Switzerland was to discuss ways in which these officials and leaders in their fields could work together to control and eradicate ten neglected tropical diseases. 

Neglected Tropical Diseases, or NTDs, are parasitic infections that afflict more than a billion people in 143 different countries. In a wide-reaching effort to help these people, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) partners with over 1,500 private organizations. In the past decade, USAID and its partners have delivered more than 1.3 billion NTD treatments to over 560 million people across 25 countries. Public-private partnerships, like this and others that have convened in Geneva, are key to wiping them out. Yet some at the United Nations are poised to disrupt this lifesaving collaboration.

Despite this public-private collaboration, hundreds of millions of people in the developing world still lack access to medicines. Various U.N. bodies have asked why that is. Some of them blame patents and other intellectual property rights, which keep drug prices elevated for a limited period of time so that companies have a chance to earn back their development costs.

Unfortunately, some U.N. agencies have proposed weakening intellectual property rights. A 2016 report from the U.N. High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines called on governments to aggressively use The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, a World Trade Organization pact, to take away drug companies' patents through "compulsory licenses." Additionally, the World Health Organization will soon host a "Fair Pricing Forum" to explore new restrictions on intellectual property rights.

Evidence suggests that patents aren't the problem. 95 percent of the drugs on the WHO's essential medicines list are off-patent.  

Rather, insufficient medical infrastructure is the main barrier that restricts patients' access to medicines. For example, half of all Nicaraguan health personnel work in the capital, but 80 percent of the population lives elsewhere. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, plastic gloves and clean needles are in short supply. Many nations lack adequate storage and transportation capabilities -- so drugs spoil in warehouses or during transport to rural villages.

Lack of education also undermines patient's access to medical treatments. In India, 50 to 80 percent of the population has limited access to essential medicines. Why? According to Wharton researcher Stephen Sammut, Indian law prohibits pharmacists from dispensing the least expensive generic version of a drug when a brand-name medicine is prescribed. And many Indian doctors only know drugs by their brand names, not the generic name. So even though inexpensive treatments exist, doctors don't prescribe them and patients don't receive them. 

Private companies are already working to resolve these issues. The Access Accelerated initiative, a partnership between more than 20 biopharmaceutical companies, the World Bank, and others, helps to diagnose and expand access to treatment for people battling cancer and other non-communicable diseases. 

Biopharmaceutical companies are partnering with non-profits and government organizations to support and implement the strategies outlined by the WHO and make miracles happen for patients suffering from neglected tropical diseases. It'd be a shame if other UN bodies undermine these partnerships with an unbalanced emphasis on intellectual property rights as the major impediment to patient access.

Neeraj Mistry, MD, MPH, is an independent global health consultant based in Washington, D.C. He formerly led the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases and was vice president of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria. 


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