At a global health conference, I heard a story from Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF; Doctors without Borders) mission head, about her time working in a Rwandan hospital during the Civil War. While touring the units, she unexpectedly encountered a door that was completely shut. Taking a look inside, she was astonished to find several HIV patients, all very close to death, with nothing being done to improve their health.
The response she received from MSF headquarters revealed a harsh, but definitive truth: “Do you know how much it costs to treat a single patient with HIV? There’s nothing we can do for these people.”
Stories like these are not uncommon. According to the World Health Organization, two billion people worldwide lack access to essential medicines and 10 million die annually as a result. Rachel, a lawyer and activist, later became president of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), an international humanitarian organization that strives to offer solutions to this global health crisis.
Inspired by Rachel and her initiative, I have been leading a UAEM campaign over the past two years, collaborating with Western administrators to get the university to adopt socially responsible drug patent and licensing policies, which would allow for lower drug prices in low-income countries without jeopardizing university profits.
Not many students know that universities develop one-third of new medicines annually. By collaborating with our institutions to develop policies like these, we can reduce the burden on individuals who simply cannot afford the medicines they need.
The rationale for our initiative comes from this statistic: the United States, Japan, and Europe’s "top five" (Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom) contributed 89.5 per cent of global pharmaceutical sales of new medicines from 2011 to 2016. Because the majority of profits come from high-income countries, reducing the prices of drugs in low-income countries can increase access to medicines without significantly affecting profits.
In 2008, the University of British Columbia (UBC) showed that this was possible with its license for a new Amphotericin B oral formulation. This technology provided a significant advancement for treating leishmaniasis, a disease that affects 12 million globally. UBC granted iCo Therapeutics exclusive rights to commercialize this technology in the developed world, and in return, iCo Therapeutics agreed to sell the drug at the cost of production in developing nations. In this way, the university achieved a life-saving balance between improving access to its medical innovations and ensuring a return on investment.
While UBC has made notable progress in this respect, its work is few and far between among research institutions. Recently, UAEM released its University Report Card, which evaluated 15 Canadian universities on their contributions to neglected health needs and access to medicines.
Western placed 14th out of 15 Canadian universities, with a grade of D+ compared to UBC’s first place ranking and grade of A.
But this is changing. After three years of formal communication and collaboration between our UAEM student group and Western administration, I’m really glad to say that a coherent policy is emerging — one that is based on drug licensing strategies and principles endorsed by Harvard, UBC, and the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM).
In recent months, Western has taken crucial steps forward by forming a committee dedicated to this initiative. The committee has decided to “share … sample clauses” from AUTM’s Global Health Toolkit with Western researchers.
As a result, researchers will now be informed about the option to use socially responsible licensing strategies for their medical innovations. This is an important step forward in facilitating affordable medicine.
As we progress through this initiative in collaboration with the university, we will continue to discuss well-informed avenues for our institution to uphold its own values of social responsibility and global engagement, as outlined in Western’s Strategic Plan.
Our hope is to work toward more effective policies that create a concrete impact for the university community and for those who simply cannot afford the medicines they need — so that by the end of this initiative, we will be able to say that there is certainly something we can do for these people.
—Michael Yongjun Lee, a fourth-year student in the neuroscience program. He is vice-president (access) of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines at Western.