Forrest Gump for UN Secretary-General

  • by: Peter Pitts |
  • 09/14/2016
Just when you thought it was impossible for the United Nations to be less relevant comes The Report of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines.

What’s the UN’s answer to broader access to medicines? Doing away with patents. Disregarding intellectual property. Compulsory Licensing. A triple-play of nonsense and unintended consequences. But we’ve heard it all before.

The UN is living proof of HL Mencken’s famous maxim that, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

The focus of the UN report is on new, on-patent medicines, but the report ignores the WHO’s model Essential Drug List. Why? Because it doesn’t fit the narrative of “Big Pharma as the enemy.” After all, very few of the 400 or so drugs deemed essential are new, or patented or were ever patented in the world’s poorest countries.  In category after category, from aspirin to Zithromax, in almost every case and in almost every country, these medicines have always been (or have been for many years) in the public domain.  That is, the medicine is fully open to legal and legitimate generic manufacture.

And yet, they are not readily available.

There are important implications for the world’s poorest patients. If these patients had reliable and affordable access to these several hundred essential medicines, all available theoretically as multi-source, that is from generics companies, then global mortality and morbidity might be cut as much as 10-20% — a huge gain for populations around the world. Given the potential hugely positive impact on access to medicines, any reasonable person might ask why doesn’t a body that largely represents the needs and desires of the Developing World address this issue?

The UN report isn’t a serious attempt to address access. It’s just another political broadside against patents and intellectual property. For shame.

Perhaps the next Secretary General of the United Nations should be … Forrest Gump.

Neatly timed to coincide with the UN’s screed comes Colombia’s Declaration of Public Interest to impose additional price cuts on the Novartis’ Gleevec. This decision has the potential to result in higher spending on lower-quality generics. Here’s how PhRMA’s Brian Toohey directly addresses the issue,

“There continues to be no legitimate reasons for Colombia to enforce a declaration of public interest for the product in question. This medicine is being provided to all Colombian patients who need it and almost half of the patients needing the drug are taking a generic version. In addition, the medicine has been sold in Colombia at a price negotiated and agreed to by the Colombian Government under its existing pricing system and there is no apparent shortage or evidence of other access issues. The Colombian Government’s actions are therefore without merit.

“Biopharmaceutical innovators support strong national health systems and timely access to quality, safe and effective medicines for patients who need them. Ad hoc price cuts are not effective or sustainable ways to improve access or achieve other critical public health goals. Pricing systems should be based on transparent rules and fair processes that provide business certainty for pharmaceutical innovators.

“The enforcement of a declaration of public interest as a mechanism to impose superfluous price controls sets a harmful global precedent, undermining the incentives that enable high-risk research and development investments in life-saving medical innovation and a host of other cutting-edge industries.

“The way to achieve access to medicines is not through compromising incentives for innovation but by leveraging the collective abilities, strengths and resources of all stakeholders to improve health outcomes.”


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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