Awaiting The Two To Tango: Pharma Innovation And Public Health Interest

“The rewards for the breakthrough drug discovery must be substantial, but if prices are the only mechanism through which returns on research flow, affordability will be compromised,” articulated an article titled, ‘Pharmaceutical Policy Reform – Balancing Affordability with Incentives for Innovation’, published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) on February 25, 2016.

The article arrived at this conclusion, on the backdrop of the high prices of prescription drugs becoming an issue of paramount concern, not just in the United States, but across the world. This concern is so acute that it found its way into policy proposals from both the prime candidates, in the American Presidential election held on November 8, 2016.

Through last several decades, healthcare sector in general and particularly the pharmaceutical industry, witnessed many innovations that cure and effectively manage ailments to improve the general quality of life. It enormously impacted the lives of many in the developed countries, and a few others which offer high quality Universal Health Care in a comprehensive format, for all.

A trickle-down impact:

Nevertheless, even no more than its just a trickle-down impact, helped increase overall life expectancy of the population in many developing and poor countries, mostly driven by the expanding number of cheaper generic drugs, fueled by more treatment and disease management options.

The paper titled, ‘World Population Prospects – The 2015 Revision’ of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division of the United Nations’ reported that the life expectancy at birth rose by 3 years between 2000-2005 and 2010-2015, that is from 67 to 70 years. All major areas shared in the life expectancy gains over this period, but the greatest increases were in Africa, where life expectancy rose by 6 years in the 2000s, after rising by only 2 years in the previous decade.

Similarly, the global life expectancy at birth is projected to rise from 70 years in 2010-2015 to 77 years in 2045- 2050 and to 83 years in 2095-2100. Africa is projected to gain about 19 years of life expectancy by the end of the century, reaching 70 years in 2045-2050 and 78 years in 2095-2100. Such increases are contingent on further reductions in the spread of HIV, and combating successfully other infectious as well as non-communicable diseases.

The availability of cheaper generics gave some respite:

Out of a total population of 7.3 billion, as the above report says, the World Bank estimated that in 2013, 767 million people still lived on less than US$ 1.90 a day. Unfortunately, despite the greater availability of a large variety of cheaper generic drugs, the basic health care remains elusive to hundreds of millions of people in the world.

What causes more concern is the fact that 6 percent of people in low and middle-income countries are tipped into or pushed further into extreme poverty because of health spending, as the June 12, 2015 report of the World Health Organization (W.H.O) and the World Bank highlights. W.H.O has estimated that over a billion population of the world still suffer from neglected tropical diseases.

How many people benefitted from pricey patented drugs?

Nevertheless, despite so much innovation in the pharma industry, access to these new drugs remains elusive to a large section of even some the most developed nations, such as the United States, as they can’t afford these high-priced drugs. The overall situation, in this regard, is going from bad to worse. For example, the March 16, 2015 study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings reveals that the average annual cost of cancer drugs increased from roughly US$ 10,000 prior to 2000 to an astounding over US$  100,000 by 2012.

Further, an August 31, 2015 article published in the ‘Health Affairs’ also gave examples of Biogen Idec’s multiple sclerosis drug, Tecfidera, which costs US$ 54,900 per patient per year; hepatitis C cures from Gilead Sciences, with a sticker price of $84,000 per patient; and Orkambi, a cystic fibrosis drug from Vertex Pharmaceuticals approved this month, priced at a whopping US$ 259,000 per year. A Kaiser Health Tracking Poll last July 2015 found that 73 percent of Americans find the cost of drugs to be unreasonable, and most blamed drug manufacturers for setting prices too high, the article stated.

The health care scenario in India is no better:

A study conducted by the ‘National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO)’ from January to June 2014, which was the 71st round of the ‘National Sample Survey’, and published in the ‘Health in India’ report, narrates a very gloomy picture for India, especially for a clear majority of those who incur ‘out of pocket’ expenses on medicines. The report states, out of all health expenditure, 72 percent in rural and 68 percent in urban areas was for buying medicines for non-hospitalized treatment.

Thus, many patients cannot afford health services, even when these are needed the most. As many as 68 percent of patients in urban India and 57 percent in rural areas attributed “financial constraints” as the main reason to take treatment without any medical advice, the report adds.

In this situation, the challenges that the Governments and the civil society are facing in many developing, and to some extent even in some developed countries, though for different reasons, are multi-factorial. It has been well established that the humongous global health care challenges are mostly of economic origin.

Pharma innovation benefitted the developed countries more:

A study  titled, ‘Pharmaceutical innovation and the burden of disease in developing and developed countries’ of Columbia University and National Bureau of Economic Research, to ascertain the relationship across diseases between pharmaceutical innovation and the burden of disease both in the developed and developing countries, reported that pharmaceutical innovation is positively related to the burden of disease in the developed countries but not so in the developing countries.

Making the two to tango:

These facts prompt the need to make the pharma innovation and public health interest to tango. Several suggestions have been made and initiatives taken in this direction. Some of which are as follows:

  • Responding to this need, in 2006 W.H.O created the ‘Intergovernmental Working Group on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property (IGWG)’. The primary focus of IGWG is on promoting sustainable, needs-driven pharmaceutical R&D for the diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries. One positive effect of this global debate is that some global pharmaceutical companies have initiated their R&D activities for neglected tropical diseases, such as, Malaria and Tuberculosis. Many charitable organizations like, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Clinton Foundation, are allocating significant funds for this purpose.
  • A paper  titled, “Optional reward for new drugs for developing countries” published by the Department of Economics, University of Calgary, Institute of Health Economics, proposed an optional reward fund for pharmaceutical innovation aimed at the developing world to the pharmaceutical companies, which would develop new drugs while ensuring their adequate access to the poor. The paper suggests that innovations with very high market value will use the existing patent system, as usual. However, the medicines with high therapeutic value but low market potential would be encouraged to opt for the optional reward system. It was proposed that the optional reward fund should be created by the governments of the developed countries and charitable institutions to ensure a novel way for access to innovative medicines by the poor.
  • ‘Open Innovation’ or the ‘Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD)’ is another model of discovering a New Chemical Entity (NCE) or a New Molecular Entity (NME). Imbibing ‘Open Innovation’ for commercial results in pharmaceuticals, just has what has happened to android smartphones, would encourage drug discovery initiatives, especially for the dreaded disease like cancer, to make these drugs affordable for a very large section of people across the globe. In this model, all data generated related to the discovery research will be available in the open for collaborative inputs. In ‘Open Innovation’, the key component is the supportive pathway of its information network, which is driven by three key parameters of open development, open access and open source. This concept was successfully used in the ‘Human Genome Project’ where many scientists, and microbiologists participated from across the world to sequence and understand the human genes. Currently, pharmaceutical R&D is a well-protected in-house initiative of innovator global companies to maximize commercial benefits. For this reason, only a limited number of scientists working for the respective innovator companies will have access to these projects. In India, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is the champion of the OSDD movement, locally. CSIR believes that for a developing country like India, OSDD will help the common man to meet his or her unmet medical needs in the areas of mainly neglected tropical diseases.


Thus, the ongoing heated debate on Innovation, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and Public Health Interest is gathering steam all over the globe.

Argumentative Indians are also participating in this raging debate. I reckon rightly so, as India is not only the largest democracy of the world contributing 16.7 percent of the global population, it is also afflicted with 21 percent of the global burden of disease. Considering this, the reason for similar heated debate in our country is indeed no-brainer to anyone.

Many would possibly not disagree, both encouraging innovation and safeguarding the public health interest are equally important to any society, be it in the developed nations or developing countries. Nevertheless, some constituents of ‘Big Pharma’ and their trade association still highlight that ensuring access to high price innovative drugs is the responsibility of the respective Governments. Any other regulatory mechanism to bring down such prices will be construed as a barrier to encouraging, protecting and rewarding innovation.

Be that as it may, most other stakeholders, across the world, especially the patients, are awaiting these two goals to tango. From that point, I reckon, giving a quick shape to commercially well-tested initiatives, such as, ‘Open Innovation’ model could well be an important step to ensure access to innovative new medicines for a larger number of patients of the world, meeting their unmet medical needs with greater care.

By: Tapan J Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.