Free and Public

Let’s break the vicious circle of inequality in health and access to medicines By Leïla Bodeux Policy Officer, Oxfam-Solidarité

A recent Oxfam report states that by 2016, 1% of the world population will own more wealth than the rest of us combined. This economic injustice is intertwined with gender inequality, and also with inequality in access to education and health. Inequality in access to medicine is a key feature of this global inequality.

Medicine: A hugely profitable business: Medicines, so critical for saving lives and protecting public health, can also deliver eye-watering profits. In 2013 the 10 leading pharmaceutical companies had combined revenue of US $440 billion. The biggest pharmaceutical company in the world, Pfizer, generated US $50 billion of revenue and US $22 billion profit in 2014. Such profits flow from the prices set for some of the newer medicines. In 2014 Gilead Sciences set the US price of its new drug to treat Hepatitis C at US $1000 per pill, or US$ 84,000-110,000 per treatment, a price that generated sales worth US $10 billion in 2014 for this medicine alone. It is worth remembering that approximately 150 million people are infected with hepatitis C, 75% of whom live in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), and that about 350,000 of these die each year.

New cancer medicines allow big pharma to charge more than US $100,000 per treatment. These astronomical prices have become unaffordable even in rich countries. The UK has refused to reimburse several cancer medicines due to exorbitant prices. An op-ed co-signed by 100 leading oncologists in the prestigious journal Blood in 2012 called for a reduction of cancer medicine prices, which they deemed economically unsustainable. These unprecedented prices turn life-saving medicines into a highly profitable business.

The collective wealth of billionaires with interests in the pharmaceutical and health sectors increased from US $170bn in 2013 to US $250bn in 2014, a 47% increase and the largest percentage increase in wealth of the different sectors on the Forbes list. The World Bank estimated that the economic costs of the Ebola outbreak to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was US $356m in lost output in 2014, and that this will increase to US $815m in 2015 if the epidemic cannot be quickly contained. The greatest increase in wealth by a single pharma-related billionaire between 2013 and 2014 could pay the entire US $1.17bn cost for 2014–15 three times over. With such huge amounts of money at stake, the pharma sector does everything in its power to ensure that rules and policies are in place to maintain the status quo.

When company lobbyists hijack the decision-making process: Large sums are spent by the pharmaceutical industry in lobbying health-related decision-makers. In 2013, the pharmaceutical and healthcare sector spent more than US $487 million on lobbying in the US alone, more than was spent by any other sector in the US. The same sector spent US $260 million on campaign contributions during the election cycle of 2012. In Europe, the pharmaceutical industry employs around 220 lobbyists and an army of lobbyists covers Capitol Hill. They aim to maintain monopoly controls that allow high prices for as long as possible.

The pharmaceutical sector also lobbies the governments of the US and the EU to expand companies’ intellectual property (IP) monopoly power through the negotiation of Free Trade Agreements (FTA)[1]. These FTAs seek to restrict governments’ ability to use policy tools that promote access to affordable medicines, which has been condemned by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director Margaret Chan.

Countries are also put under pressure to strengthen their IP rules outside trade negotiations.

This is the case with the US pressure to reform India’s balanced IP law, threatening to shut down the “pharmacy of the developing world”[2]. The “Pharma Gate” scandal in South Africa in 2014 revealed leaked emails showing that Pharmaceutical Associations based in South Africa and the US (PhRMA) hired a powerful US lobby firm to derail South African IP law reform that facilitated access to generic medicines.

Big pharma should focus on what it’s supposed to do: create useful new medicines to support public health at affordable prices: Pharmaceutical companies play a critical role in public health through creating medicines that save and improve the quality of life. But increasingly the industry has lost its way, concentrating on ‘blockbuster’ products, and spending money on marketing and lobbying for ever stronger monopoly rights. The current system, which is supposed to incentivize R&D by granting 20-year patents on innovative medicines, fails to meet the public health need for affordable medicines. R&D is invested where large profits can be made – often products are priced so that only a small proportion of the needs are met – while diseases that affect primarily poor countries are sidelined. Only 10% of the world R&D is spent on diseases that affect 90% of the world population. It is estimated that more than one billion people affected by neglected tropical diseases fail to get the treatment they need.

Three pharmaceutical companies (GSK, Johnson and Johnson, Novartis) made the greatest financial contribution to the Ebola relief effort, donating more than $3 million in cash and medical products. Although laudable, these same three companies together spent more than US $18 million on lobbying activities in the US in 2013. The non-existence of a treatment or vaccine for Ebola resulted from lack of R&D investment and the absence of a financially profitable market. The industry employs great scientists and researchers whose creativity is channeled to products for highly profitable markets instead of services for the vast numbers of people worldwide who are still denied the benefits of new technologies. Their plight should be the number 1 priority of all actors who have a part to play, including the pharmaceutical companies.

Winnie Byanyima, the head of Oxfam International, rightly put it in Davos: “Let the companies stop lobbying, and put the money into medicine!“. The Oxfam Even It Up campaign seeks to consign to the history books the statistic that 1 person out of 3 does not have access to needed medicines.

[1]The following trade negotiations are currently undergoing: EU-Thailand FTA, EU-India FTA, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

[2]India’s balanced IP law allowed its generic industry to lower the price of Antiretroviral treatments by 99 % since 2000, bringing the cost of treatment to below $100 per person per year

 

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Global Health Check was created by Anna Marriott and is currently edited by Mohga Kamal-Yanni