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Durban 2016: A call to world leaders to enhance research and development (R&D) and access to medicine

“I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. My insurance refused to cover my Herceptin treatment because of the high price. Now the cancer has spread all over my body. I need Herceptin so that I can live and bring up my two boys”.

These were Tobeka Daki’s words to the audience during a session at the International AIDS Conference in Durban last week. The session, titled ‘A call to world leaders to enhance research and development (R&D) and access to medicine, and an appeal to the UN High Level Panel (HLP) on human rights and access to medicine’, was co-sponsored by Treatment Action Campaign, Stop AIDS, Open Society Foundation and Oxfam.

Tobeka is deprived of the medicine that can save her life because Herceptin costs half a million Rand ($35,049) per patient per year in South Africa. Meanwhile, Roche is celebrating its successful financial results of June 2016:

“The net income increased 4% to 5.5 billion Swiss francs ($5.57 billion) in the six months to June 30, beating analyst estimates of 5.3 billion. Revenue rose 6% to 25 billion francs, in line with estimates”. ’

The global R&D system for health technologies results in such high prices of new medicines because it is based on maximisation of profits to incentivise investment in R&D. The system has generally failed to deliver affordable health technologies to prevent and treat diseases. While governments (except Least Developed Countries ) are obliged to implement intellectual property protection as part of the agreement on Trade Related Aspects on Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), they are also obligated under international human rights law to fulfill their citizens’ rights to health and access to treatment.

The mandate of the HLP, established by the UN Secretary General, is to make recommendations to remedy “the policy incoherence between the justifiable rights of inventors, international human rights law, trade rules and public health in the context of health technologies.”

Sixteen years ago at the International AIDS Conference held in Durban in 2000, civil society sent a strong message to world leaders that people living with HIV must have access to life-saving antiretroviral medicines (ARVs). At that time, ARVs were available only in the “North”, while the majority of people living with HIV lived in Southern countries. At this year’s conference, people celebrated the fact that 17 million women, men and children are now accessing treatment. Thanks to generic competition that dramatically reduced the price of ARVs, it was possible to mobilise global public funding to pay for treatment programmes. However, will it take another 16 years before the 19 million people living with HIV – but without access to treatment – can receive the medicines they urgently need?

Generic competition for new medicines is almost completely limited because India, commonly known as the pharmacy of the developing world, has adopted TRIPS and is now under great pressure to increase its intellectual property protection even beyond TRIPS.

Meanwhile the world is waking to the reality that cancer is not a disease of rich countries but is affecting increasing numbers of people everywhere. According to the World Health Organisation, 70% of cancer mortality (5.5 million people) now occurs in the developing world. Other diseases such as multiple sclerosis – which used to be considered “Northern” conditions – are increasingly being diagnosed in developing countries. The prices of medicines for these diseases are beyond the means of patients, governments and insurers.

Activists show solidarity with women unable to access vital medecines used to treat breast cancer

Activists show solidarity with women unable to access vital medecines used to treat breast cancer

It is in this context that the scope of the HLP covers all diseases and is not limited to neglected diseases in developing countries. The HLP recognises that new cancer medicines are priced beyond the capacity to pay even of governments in the North. Both the public and the private sectors are struggling to provide these medicines to patients in Europe and in the US.

And it is not only cancer medicines that are unaffordable. At the conference I met two people from Sweden working to support women living with HIV. We talked about medicine prices and they assured me several times that they did not face any problem in Sweden because medicines are free in the public sector. One of them compared her “good luck” to people in Africa who face high prices for hepatitis C treatment. She then said that she herself suffered from hepatitis C but could not get the medicine because according to national guidelines her liver “is not bad enough” to qualify for treatment. It was eye-opening to see how Europeans are unaware of the relationship between high prices and the rationing of treatment. Today England was criticised for rationing hepatitis c treatment by limiting the number of people who get the medicines every year.

As civil society we see the need to revitalise the access to treatment movement in order to promote much needed global reforms in the R&D system for health technologies. The HLP provides an important opportunity for UN member states to address the conflict between securing the human right to health and medicine, and countries’ obligations under the TRIPS agreement, taking account of access problems in all countries, for all diseases. These reforms could be a vital first implementation of world leaders’ commitment to “leaving no one behind”.

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Global Health Check is edited by Anna Marriott, Health Policy Advisor for Oxfam GB, and welcomes contributions from different authors. If you would like to write an article for this site or if you have any queries please contact: amarriott@oxfam.org.uk.