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News & Trends - Pharmaceuticals

GSK, Janssen, AstraZeneca, Novartis and Merck secure top 5 spots in driving equitable access to medicines

Health Industry Hub | November 18, 2022 |

Pharma News: The past three years have demonstrated that the need for equitable access to medicines has never been more important or more urgent. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more pharmaceutical companies have stepped up to make some of their medicines more widely accessible in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). If the pandemic is to be a turning point in the fight for equitable access to medicine, companies must now scale their efforts to cover more products in their portfolios, and in a greater number of countries.

The 2022 Access to Medicine Index* assesses 20 of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies in relation to their efforts to expand access to medicine for people living in 108 low- and middle-income countries.

In the overall ranking, GSK retained the number one position by a very narrow margin ahead of Johnson & Johnson (Janssen), which moved up from third place in 2021. AstraZeneca has newly joined the top three, having risen from the seventh spot in the previous Index. The top 3 were supplemented by Novartis in fourth place and Merck in fifth place.

For the first time, Bayer joined the top ten, improving its performance in R&D – with the broad geographic reach of its R&D plans highlighted as a best practice in the 2022 Index.

Jayasree Iyer, CEO of Access to Medicine Foundation, said “Pharmaceutical companies have responded to the inequity in access to medicine laid bare by COVID-19 – including committing to addressing this in many countries. If they can deliver on these ambitions and reach patients quickly and broadly, it will be a breakthrough in solving persistent gaps in global health equity.”

To ensure people in LMICs have access to new and innovative medicines and vaccines as soon as possible after they are launched, companies ideally need to have an access plan in place for products as they near the end of the R&D pipeline.

Six companies – Astellas, Boehringer Ingelheim, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Novartis, and Takeda – now have access plans in place for all of their late-stage R&D projects, marking the first time any of the 20 companies have reached this milestone.

For 77% of projects nearing the end of the R&D pipeline, companies now have a plan in place to promote access after product launch, compared with 40% in the previous Index. While this progress is encouraging, only 15% of access plans across the companies in scope include one of the 27 low-income countries, with the 26 upper-middle income countries far more likely to be considered in companies’ access plans for an R&D project.

The 2022 Index also highlighted that companies are increasingly engaging in voluntary licensing, enabling generic medicine manufacturers to develop and manufacture generic versions of their on-patent medicines.

“Encouragingly, non-exclusive voluntary licensing (NEVL) is now being used beyond products targeting HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis, with the inclusion of both COVID-19 therapeutics and a treatment for leukaemia,” added Ms Iyer.

During the period of analysis (1 June 2020 – 31 May 2022), six companies entered into new voluntary licensing agreements, three of them for the first time: AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly and Novartis. Such agreements can increase regional availability, supply and affordability of new and innovative medicines that would otherwise not reach people living in many LMICs.

While much of this trend is driven by companies engaging in voluntary licensing for COVID-19 products, it opens the door for more companies to consider entering licences for a wider range of medicines, including novel therapies and products for non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Novartis’s non-exclusive voluntary licence for a leukaemia medicine with the Medicines Patent Pool – the first such agreement covering an NCD – is significant.

James Hazel, Research Programme Manager for the 2022 Index, Access to Medicine Foundation, stated “The 2022 Index finds that industry-wide improvement in planning for access and expanding access strategies still overlooks low-income countries. Companies must consider the depths of their plans, strength of their supply chains, and equity of their pricing strategies to reach the most vulnerable populations.”

Despite the rapid and effective R&D response to COVID-19, there has been global inequity in vaccine rollout and R&D for emerging infectious diseases remains insufficient.

Successive editions of the Index showed that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic pharma companies were largely not engaging in R&D for emerging infectious diseases (EIDs), including coronaviruses that had already been identified as having pandemic potential.

Unfortunately, the 2022 Index revealed that the pipeline for R&D projects covering EIDs (excluding COVID-19 and other coronaviral diseases) remained mainly empty. Only 5 of the 20 companies in scope – Bayer, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, MSD and Takeda – are active in this area and they target a small number of EIDs that are seen as being able to trigger the next pandemic or serious epidemic. 

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only widened the inequities in global health, having taken the greatest toll on vulnerable populations in low-resource settings. Our latest Index therefore comes at a pivotal time in determining if pharmaceutical companies are now ready to put sustainable access front and centre in their strategies. The conclusion must be that – despite some progress – there is still a way to go,” Ms Iyer concluded.

In reimagining healthcare across the entire patient journey, Health Industry HubTM is the only one-stop-hub bringing the diversity of Pharma, MedTech, Diagnostics & Biotech sectors together to inspire meaningful change.

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*The 2022 Access to Medicine Index assesses 20 of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies in relation to their efforts to expand access to medicine for people living in 108 low- and middle-income countries. It looks at 83 diseases, conditions and pathogens, which have been identified as the most critical priorities. Companies are scored and ranked based on 31 indicators which are spread across three Technical Areas: Governance of Access, Research & Development, and Product Delivery.


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