UAEM and the Access to Medicines Crisis

The research gap

Many diseases affecting millions of the world’s poorest remain largely overlooked: countless people suffer in developing countries from sleeping sickness, lymphatic filariasis, blinding trachoma, and other “neglected diseases.” Many of these diseases have no safe and effective treatments, because these destitute sick do not constitute a sufficient market opportunity to attract commercial research and development (R&D). In fact, only 10% of R&D dollars go towards research into 90% of the world’s health problems.

Read more:

  1. New numbers back old meme: Pharma does spend more on marketing than R&D,  November 06, 2014 by Tracy Staton
  2. Minimum Costs for Producing Hepatitis C Direct-Acting Antivirals for Use in Large-Scale Treatment Access Programs in Developing Countries, October 2013 by Andrew Hill et al.
  3. New Trade Framework for Global Healthcare R&D, by Tim Hubbard, James Love (February 17, 2004)


Essential medicines are drugs and vaccines that the World Health Organization considers necessary for a basic health care system. The list of essential medicines includes drugs for the treatment of HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, but also non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

One third of the world’s population lacks access to these medicines. The consequence of this problem is commonly referred to as the access gap: 10 million people die annually from diseases that are treatable with current medicines.

The reasons for the lack of access to medicines are diverse: high prices, lack of infrastructure (e.g. refrigerated storage for drugs, transportation to the clinic, clean water), medical staff, and a lack of political will. UAEM (Universities Allied for Essential Medicines) focuses on eliminating the high price barrier to accessing needed medicines including, but not limited to, the WHO list.

Why are prices high?

The reasons contributing to the high prices of medicines are complex. Over the past several decades, pharmaceutical and biomedical industries have made tremendous strides in terms of producing an unprecedented variety of effective drugs. However, as the ambitions of researchers grow in their quest to conquer disease, so too has the cost of research grown. From the birth of a new drug in the discovery phase at universities and long-term development at research firms, drugs require stringent testing in order to ensure both safety and efficacy before they are ready for use by the general public. It is thought-provoking that the pharmaceutical industry-supported Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development has claimed it costs US$2.56 billion to develop a new drug today; but if you believe that, you probably also believe the earth is flat as on the other hand, GlaxoSmithKline’s CEO Andrew Witty himself has said that it is not fact. The pharmaceutical industry sometimes in order to justify its stance regarding an increase in a drug’s prices, use this tactics of claiming high cost of production for that medicine.

A patent is an exclusive right to manufacture and sell a product in the country the patent was issued in. This exclusivity enables the owner of a patent to recoup the money spent on research and development, by setting the maximum price that they expect the market can absorb—often it is much more than the actual manufacturing cost. Unfortunately, since new medicines are typically sold at such a high price, access is limited to the select, few wealthy countries and the individuals who can afford to pay these prices.

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