How Not To Increase Access To Medicines

Mario H. Lopez | President, Hispanic Leadership Fund

Expanding access to affordable, high-quality drugs in developing countries has long been a priority for policymakers and advocacy groups around the world. However, there is little agreement over how to achieve this goal – and the United Nations’ latest initiative is unlikely to change that dynamic.

With just months left in office, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has decided that creating another talk shop is the best way to increase access to medicines for those with the greatest need. Formed late last year, his “High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines” is now reviewing proposals and planning to issue a report this summer.

Rather than asking this distinguished group of scholars and former government leaders to look at concrete solutions to the wide range of barriers that stand between the poor and high-quality medicines, the Secretary General has set up the most esoteric debate imaginable. He has charged the Panel with resolving “the misalignment between the justifiable rights of inventors, international human rights law, trade rules and public health.” Such a built-in bias has all but ensured that the panel would be doomed at the outset.

The simple truth is that access barriers are not legal, but all too practical. Despite investment and progress, many parts of the world still lack the transportation infrastructure, distribution networks and treatment facilities necessary to move medicines quickly and easily to where they are needed most and to safely store and reliably dispense them to people in need.

In many parts of the world, there are no physicians or other trained healthcare providers to proscribe and administer the medicines that do reach remote areas – and many less remote ones, too. According to a recent World Health Organization report, the global shortage of healthcare workers stood at 7.2 million in 2013. That figure is expected to grow to 12.9 million by 2035. In the average high-income country, there are about 30 doctors per 10,000 people. In low-income countries, there are just two.

Misplaced national priorities also play a role. Public healthcare spending by some governments that claim to care the most about access to treatment for the poorest amounts to little more than one percent of GDP. They collect more in tariffs and taxes on medicines than they spend on medicines. In addition, by adhering to an inefficient and corrupt government run healthcare bureaucracy, they prevent the formation of private insurance markets that could make quality healthcare more affordable for many.

These and other challenges have been the focus of dozens of UN reports. Yet, they are expressly excluded from the Panel review. Instead, the Secretary General has set his sights on an easier target – the inventors of medicines and the intellectual property rights that provide vital incentives for investment in the development of new treatments and cures for the world’s most devastating diseases.

Patents and other intellectual property have come in for plenty of abuse in recent years. But whatever your views, the reality is that patents are the best system the world has for driving medical advancements today and for the foreseeable future. Innovators rely on the temporary protection patents provide to attract capital and fund new research lines. Without them, investors will move their capital elsewhere.

That would be devastating for patients around the world – and particularly in developing countries, which have been among the chief beneficiaries of modern medical innovation. Over the last five years, malaria treatments alone have saved the lives of more than a million African children. Between 2000 and 2006, immunizations dropped the number of measles death in Africa by a stunning 91 percent.

It’s not too late for the Secretary General to stop trying to treat patients with policy. The Panel should remember that while global bureaucrats wring their hands over commas and clauses, real people are waiting for cures.

Mario H. Lopez is president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a non-partisan advocacy organization dedicated to public policy solutions that foster liberty, opportunity, and prosperity for all Americans.

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