Research burden carried by a handful of drug companies, says report

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on November 20, 2018 Published on November 20, 2018

Five firms account for 63% of priority R&D being undertaken

A lion’s share of the research on medicines that would benefit people in developing countries is getting done by just a handful of pharmaceutical companies, says Netherlands-based Access to Medicine (ATM) Foundation, in its latest report.

The Foundation’s 2018 Access to Medicine Index report, released on Tuesday in Amsterdam, ranks top 20 pharmaceutical companies on their efforts to improve medicine access in middle- and low-income countries. GlaxoSmithKline topped this year’s Index report, followed by Novartis, Johnson & Johnson and Merck KgaA. These four companies, along with Sanofi in the sixth position, account for 63 per cent of the priority research and development being undertaken, a note from the ATM Foundation said. The report also identified Japanese drugmaker Takeda as a significant mover, jumping 10 places to the fifth place.

‘Fragile situation’

“The key message from the report is that if just a handful of companies are carrying the bulk of the priority and R&D load, it shows how fragile the situation is,” Jayasree K Iyer, Executive Director of the ATM Foundation, told BusinessLine. A consolidation of companies or a retreat of even one of these players will have a significant impact on supplies, she said, calling for more companies to get on board and bring in greater resilience.

Iyer called for more Indian companies to step up and address not just these illnesses but also others that are still to be focused on.

The report found that the industry’s research engagement was focussed on five diseases, and half of all such activity targeted malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, Chagas disease and leishmaniasis. The World Health Organisation identifies 45 diseases as priority for R&D.

The approach to access continues to mature as companies undertake initiatives including the equitable pricing approach and sharing of patents, said Danny Edwards, research lead for the Index. But there are still priority disease areas that needed more attention, he said, referring to, for example, a cholera vaccine for children below one year of age.

The report indicates that a majority of the priority R&D projects were being done with public sector research organisations. However, some companies were developing priority products without such facilitation, the report said, citing Merck’s tests and treatments for schistosomiasis, a water-borne parasitic disease that affects around 252 million people.


India has seen licensing deals (on Hepatitis C, for example) between innovator companies and Indian drugmakers to make critical medicines more accessible. But such alliances, too, have drawn criticism from some health workers, who said it came with too many caveats. This included limitations on exporting the critical drug at an affordable price to some countries that had a requirement. Similarly, GSK recently came in for some flak on paying doctors to promote limited products, a practice it had discontinued.

Responding to these criticisms of companies, the Foundation’s representatives said that while the access programmes may have hurdles, the good part was that a beginning had been made, with some companies having access programmes and others looking to scale it up. GSK going back on its sales practice was “disappointing,” said Iyer, adding that the firm did, however, lead on equitable pricing in low income countries.

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Published on November 20, 2018
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