December 6, 2012

Big Pharma Does Good — Providing Access to the Poor

By Gordon Schnell

There has been a lot of negative press on the fraudulent misadventures of Big Pharma.  Particularly lately.  Whether it be for falsifying studies, selling bad or ineffective drugs, concealing risky side effects, or ignoring FDA restrictions, it seems like every major drugmaker has been sued recently for putting profits before public health and safety.  You name the industry player, chances are they have recently paid hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars to settle charges of some form of foul play — GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Abbott Labs, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Merck, AstraZeneca, Bristol Myers Squibb.  The list goes on and on.  See What Is Going On With Big Pharma? 

Which is why the latest news on Big Pharma is so refreshing.  Finally, something to cheer about for this industry on which we all so highly depend.  It comes out of the 2012 Access to Medicine Index.  This is the biennial report funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which measures how the top 20 pharmaceutical companies are doing in making their medicines available and affordable in developing countries.  The latest report, the third one to date, shows significant improvements across the board.  Seventeen of the surveyed companies earned higher scores than they did in 2010 and the gap has narrowed between the top performers and those at the bottom of the ranking.  In short, these companies are all doing more to bring medicine to those least able to access it.

The report made several key findings in this regard.  First, Big Pharma is becoming more organized in their approach to providing access to the poor and increasingly coming to treat the issue as a significant strategic concern, not just a charitable exercise.  Second, many of the companies have increased their investment in researching and developing new products, and adapting existing ones, to specifically address the needs of the poor.  Some have devoted as much as 20 percent of their product pipeline to this cause, targeting communicable diseases with the highest health burden such as lower respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.  Third, more companies are using tiered pricing schemes where different prices are set for the same product depending on the target country or population group (though it is unclear whether this practice has led to any meaningful increase in affordability).

Of course, the report was not all rosy.  It identified several areas where some serious work still needs to be done.  This includes being more transparent about lobbying practices and clinical trial conduct and results, expanding and ensuring the effectiveness of tiered pricing, making drug donations more needs-based, and allowing developing country regulators to use clinical trial data to accelerate the approval of generic medicines.  But all in all, the index was very good news for a much maligned industry.  It was particularly nice news for the two companies that topped the rankings — GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson —  which only months ago were the subject of multi-billion government settlements for their multiple machinations with some of their blockbuster drugs.  See Glaxo Settles Largest Healthcare Fraud Case In History and Johnson & Johnson’s Risperdal Woes Roll On.  It is even better news for those so in need yet so far removed from all of the life-saving and life-improving products Big Pharma brings to the table, when it is not behaving badly.

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