Drug companies 'failing to meet health needs of world's poorest'

The dominance of the global pharmaceutical firms in providing medicine to the world's poor faces its strongest challenge yet at a meeting of World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva this week

The existing system of drug patenting and pricing is fundamentally flawed and does not meet health needs, according to report released to health experts last month.

Delegates at this year's World Health Assembly, which opened yesterday, will vote on proposals that would dramatically increase pressure on the companies, governments and the WHO to reform the system for producing and distributing drugs in the developing world.

However, campaigners fear the report is being undermined after it was not given prime position in the assembly's agenda.

The way in which multinational drug companies protect their patents in order to reap profits was highlighted by the pricing of Aids drugs a decade ago at $10,000 (£5,300) to $15,000 a year, beyond the means of countries such as South Africa where the need was greatest.

An international outcry led to a court challenge which resulted in the price of Aids drugs being slashed to $150 a year.

The report, by the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, Innovation and Public Health, saidthe existing system of research and development "has not yet produced the results hoped for, or even expected for, the people of developing countries".

Its says drugs are priced too high and there is no incentive to research treatments for the developing world, where the need is great but profits are low. Large sums are committed to finding cures for conditions such as baldness, which is not fatal, rather than for tuberculosis, which is.

The first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer was approved by the US Food and Drug administration last week. Its manufacturer, Merck, priced it at $500 for a course of three shots. That puts it beyond the reach of developing countries, where 80 per cent of cases occur.

Ellen 't Hoen, the director of Medecins sans Frontiers' Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, said tighter regulations imposed by the World Trade Organisation meant countries with an industry in generic drugs were less able to escape patent protection laws than in the past.

"We are in a world today where all new medicines are patentable. That means countries have to deal with one company to try to get lower prices. Countries will probably plead with Merck [over the cancer vaccine] and some will get it cheaper, while some will not. But this is 'Big Pharma' dictating the rules of the game, not governments."

The pharmaceutical industry insists that it needs patent protection to recoup development costs, estimated at £500m per drug. But the report says governments should devise an alternative system for drug development and patents on essential drugs should be lifted in poorer countries.

Ms 't Hoen said: "The pharmaceutical industry is a £500bn business. It is the most profitable in the world. It needs to earn back its research costs but it does that royally. If it ploughed profits into areas of research ... for the developing world that would make sense but it does not. Tuberculosis kills millions and there is no research agenda to deal with that."

Between 1975 and 2004, only 20 out of more than 1,500 new drugs marketed globally were for tropical diseases and tuberculosis, which account for 12 per cent of the total disease burden.

The World Health Assembly will vote on whether to adopt the report as part of the WHO's mandate. Ms 't Hoen said: "They are unlikely to come up with a blueprint for a global framework but we hope this will be a start."

Neglected diseases

* An estimated 40 million people have Aids world-wide, 95 per cent of them in the developing world. New, cheaper drugs now need to be distributed to those who need them

* Leishmaniasis affects two million a year and kills 60,000. Resistance to Pentostam is growing and new drugs are needed

* Malaria kills more than one million people a year, 90 per cent of them children. Combination therapy is the treatment of choice, but many nations can't pay the £1.30 cost per adult.

* Tuberculosis kills an estimated two million people a year. Multi-drug-resistant TB is growing, but there has been little research since the 1960s.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Graduate Software Developer / Junior Developer

£20 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Software Develop...

Recruitment Genius: Delegate Telesales Executive - OTE £21,000 uncapped

£16000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: High quality, dedicated Delegat...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - School Playground Designer

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Traffic Planner

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As the successful candidate you...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor