Neglected diseases impose a tremendous burden on global health.  One that is disproportionally borne by the poor and vulnerable.  Each year more than 18 million human lives end in death from poverty-related causes, fully one-third of all human deaths globally.  According to the World Health Organization, this amounts to fifty thousand deaths per day from causes such as respiratory infections, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, measles and tropical diseases.

Arguably, many of these are treatable, if not curable conditions.  The numbers are overwhelming and mandate an examination of the barriers to access medicines in developing countries where the majority of these deaths occur.  Admittedly this is an immense and complicated issue and the economics behind pharmaceutical innovation and access is but one facet of a complete understanding of the problem.  

While it is easy to point to patents and blame the pharmaceutical industry and international trade law for barriers to access to medicines in developing nations, the reality of the situation is more nuanced and not nearly so straightforward.  Patents serve a purpose and have incentivized medicines that have enhanced and extend lives on a global scale.  This innovation necessitates protection and this protection necessitates a tradeoff. Patents provide that, market exclusivity in exchange for continued investment in innovation.  Admittedly room for improvement exists and access is certainly a priority.  However, it is imperative that we preserve the incentives to innovate and ensure that the future R&D pipeline will continue to yield the innovative medicines that treat the world’s sick and suffering.  

This paper describes the context of the problems surrounding access to medicines, highlighting the tremendously complicated web of issues that prevent medicines from reaching the world’s poorest.  For the most vulnerable populations it is essential to address all of the key barriers to access, and improve procurement and monitoring systems.  Without a wider focus and a solution to these problems, it is unlikely that efforts to improve access will succeed.

Full article published in the Harvard International Law Journal.