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?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most