The Way We Get New Medicines Doesn’t Work
By Elodie Besnier
The lack of access to needed medicines has long been imagined as a problem limited to the developing world. In recent years, however, the global economic crisis and austerity policies have forced even middle- and high-income countries to grapple with the exorbitant—and rising—prices of medicines. Increasingly scientists, doctors, patients, and government officials are calling for a reexamination of our systems of drug research, development, and delivery.
Our new documentary, Medical Research: Houston, We Have a Problem, presents a chorus of voices sounding the alarm on a broken medical innovation model that puts corporate interests above people’s needs. Through interviews with health experts and opinion leaders from around the world, we unearthed five startling truths about the medical innovation system on which we all depend.
1. Drug research and development is focused on profits, not public health.
The pharmaceutical industry, the most profitable industry in the world, relies on the patent system to grant it monopolies and the right to charge whatever it likes. Yet the industry neglects research on vital diseases simply because the affected patients live in countries that can’t afford to pay high prices. This means that potential treatments for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, which concentrate in poorer countries, are often ignored.
2. The public pays twice for its medicines.
Most new lifesaving drugs are developed from science conducted by public universities at laboratories supported by public funds. Drug companies then purchase the most promising molecules from universities in order to develop marketable drugs. These same drugs are then sold at high prices to government health systems or patients—effectively purchased by the same taxpayers who funded the university research in the first place.
3. The industry trend is to search for drugs that treat, but don’t cure.
There is an alarming lack of research and development for truly novel drugs that cure diseases, like new antibiotics. Instead, 80 percent of drugs on the market treat the condition or its symptoms, but don’t cure the disease. As a result, patients must purchase the same drug for the rest of their lives, and drug companies ensure a higher income for the rest of theirs.
4. There is an alarming lack of transparency.
Pharmaceutical companies work in secret, from the discovery stage to development to clinical trials. By hiding their activities and findings from other companies that are working on the same problems, they waste enormous amounts of time and money. Drug companies also have a dangerous tendency to publish only positive clinical results, deliberately obscuring negative data about their drugs. Finally, the true costs of drug research are kept secret; instead, companies cite inflated figures to justify the high prices they charge.
5. We don’t have to accept the status quo.
Governments can ensure that medicines critical to meeting public health needs are developed and provided at an affordable price. Options include the following:
- creating awards or grants for companies that develop medicines for specific public health needs
- setting conditions on the sale of publicly funded research to drug companies—including price caps on the eventual drug, or other means to ensure availability
- developing new initiatives to drive medical research and development, like public–private partnerships such as the Drugs For Neglected Diseases Initiative
- fixing the current patent system to prevent companies from holding monopolies on the basis of weak patents or renewing 20-year patents through minor modifications to existing drugs
- promoting transparency and open access to drug research and data
Salud por Derecho is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.
Watch the complete documentary on the medical innovation system.
Elodie Besnier is policy and advocacy officer at Salud por Derecho.