Drugmakers are increasingly working on plans to improve access to some of their upcoming products, says the Access to Medicine Foundation, in its latest report. However, this planning still remains limited to a handful of companies and does not adequately cover low-income countries, it added.

“Six companies, Astellas, Boehringer Ingelheim, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Novartis and Takeda, have access plans in place for all of their late-stage research and development (R&D) projects, marking the first time any of the 20 companies have reached this milestone,” the Foundation said in its Access to Medicine Index 2022. The Index ranks 20 of the world’s leading research-based pharmaceutical companies on their actions to improve access to medicine in 108 low and middle income countries.

Companies are increasingly including access plans, even at the advanced research says , said James Hazel, Research Programme Manager for the 2022 Index with the Foundation. However, there was room for improvement, Hazel told businessline. “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,” he added.

While the progress is encouraging, “only 15 percent 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 report noted.

Some companies have access plans that are more comprehensive and include low-income countries, the report said, pointing to Novartis plans including five low-income countries in clinical trials for cipargamin (KAE609), for the treatment of severe malaria. And in line with its post-trial access policy, the company commits to registering the medicine in those countries once approved, it added. Similarly, Takeda’s access plan for its dengue vaccine QDENGA (TAK-003)considers burden of disease in its plans to file for registration, as well as innovative equitable pricing models and methods to ensure sustainable cold chain supply, the report noted.

Index ranking

Meanwhile, in this year’s Index ranking, GSK retained its number one spot, followed by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, the latter having newly joined the top three, the report said.

“GSK leads by engaging in R&D to develop treatments for diseases that disproportionally affect people living in LMICs (low and middle income countries) and by applying tailored access strategies across product categories, including licensing. AstraZeneca takes the top spot in the area of product delivery by excelling in its approach to patent transparency and technology transfers,”it added.

Prior to Covid-19, pharmaceutical companies were largely not engaging in R&D for emerging infectious diseases (EIDs), including coronaviruses that had already been identified as having pandemic potential, the report said, of findings from its earlier surveys.

“Unfortunately, the 2022 Index finds that the pipeline for R&D projects covering EIDs (excluding COVID-19 and other coronaviral diseases) has remained mainly empty,” it added.

Only five of the 20 companies reviewed – 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., the report said. Despite this stark picture, the report pointed to developments like Johnson & Johnson’s two-shot Ebola regimen (Zabdeno & Mvabea), and Bayer’s vector control product (Fludora® Co-Max), used to control adult mosquitos that potentially carry diseases such as Chikungunya and Zika.

“As the risk of EIDs increases globally through climate change, urbanisation, globalisation and migration, more companies will need to invest in R&D across a wider scope of these diseases and engage in access planning in tandem with developing products,”the report pointed out.