A call to Canadian universities to step up on global access to medicines

By Michael Gretes and Goldis Chami

Last month GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the world's second largest pharmaceutical company, rocked the pharmaceutical industry and the public health world with a groundbreaking announcement: it plans to relax its licensing on certain pharmaceutical patents in order to allow access to essential medicines for millions of people living in developing countries.

The plan would cut prices in selected developing countries and return some of the profits earned there for spending on local health care capacity. Most surprising of all, GSK also announced that it would open up its closely-guarded patent rights on scientific knowledge to researchers seeking treatments for neglected diseases, including tuberculosis and malaria.

GSK’s proposal is not a perfect solution: millions of patients in middle-income countries—such as India and Brazil—will be excluded from the deal, HIV drugs are excluded from some of the benefits, and even at reduced prices GSK products may remain out of reach for most patients in the least-developed countries. Nevertheless, the announcement represents a remarkable willingness by a pharmaceutical company to change the way it does business in developing countries.

A for-profit corporation that answers primarily to its shareholders has pledged to put substantial resources and energy into the provision of medicines for diseases that affect millions of people in low and middle-income countries. Last year, the University of British Columbia became the first university in Canada to implement Global Access Licensing principles, committing UBC to make its discoveries available and affordable to people in the developing world.

For this initiative to truly succeed, other Canadian universities must take up the challenge. McGill University’s mission statement tells of a commitment to research that will be "judged to be excellent when measured against the highest international standards". The University of Toronto holds a "resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice". The University of Alberta strives to be "one of the world’s great universities for the public good".

Now is the time to translate words into action.

Canadian universities have an important role to play as major centres for research into new health technologies and delivery systems. Medicines and lifesaving technologies produced today in university labs may hold the keys to revolutionary new treatments for diseases that take a heavy toll on populations in developing countries and developed countries alike: HIV, heart disease, cancer, and many others.

Publicly funded research produces key inputs to the drug development pipeline, and one published study indicated publicly funded research—much of it done in university labs—been instrumental in developing 15 of the 21 most important therapeutic drugs of the past century.

In spite of their important role in producing new drugs, universities have too often taken a back seat to pharmaceutical companies in determining the policy agenda for access to medicines. Patentable technologies created in universities are usually licensed to pharmaceutical companies for further development. These industry partnerships provide the resources necessary to develop university technologies into useful, marketable end products.

They also frequently guarantee that the institution and the researcher will have share of the profits through royalties. Yet too often the agreements used to create these partnerships contain no provisions preserving the rights of universities to grant access to the finished products.

This means that in many cases the health technologies originating in Canada will be priced out of reach for millions of people in developing countries. It also means that in some cases researchers wishing to build on our universities’ work may be prevented from doing so.

GlaxoSmithKline has shown that industry is willing to change the way it does business in developing countries. Instead of following industry’s lead, universities should be taking the initiative in promoting public interest policies.

GSK's announcement should come as a wake-up call for nonprofit and forprofit corporations alike to begin living up to their responsibilities to patients and to the public. It presents a challenge to all Canadian universities to implement better access policies that will allow us to meet and surpass the pharmaceutical industry in the arena of good citizenship.

Yours truly,

Michael Gretes and Goldis Chami

Aria Ahmad, UAEM-University of Toronto
Mary MacLennan, UAEM-McGill University
Amit Shah, UAEM-Dalhousie University
Lisa Moddemann, UAEM-University of Manitoba
Leigh Beamish, UAEM-University of Alberta
Stephanie Gatto, UAEM-Simon Fraser University

Michael Gretes and Goldis Chami are members of the UBC chapter of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, an international organization of students who work to ensure that biomedical end products—such as drugs—developed in campus labs are made accessible and affordable in developing countries; and to promote research in neglected diseases, which are those predominantly affecting people who are too poor to constitute a market attractive to private-sector research and development investment.