Realizing the full potential of pharmaceutical industry partnerships

Successful partnerships between pharmaceutical companies and global health organizations have been increasing access to medicines and vaccines since the 1970s. From early partnerships in the Expanded Program on Immunization, to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance and Access Accelerated the research-based pharmaceutical industry, which spends over $149 billion on research and development (R&D) every year, has an important role to play in global health.

Over the last 50 years the pharmaceutical industry has learned that global health is about more than just medicines and vaccines, and with the integrated nature of the Sustainable Development Goals, public-private partnerships are increasingly important. According to the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, the industry understands that global health requires building and supporting strong health systems, developing public health education and strengthening standards and regulations. This is why in 2018, 17 out of the 20 largest pharmaceutical companies (accounting for 70 percent of global pharmaceutical revenues) developed a business strategy, supported by goals and targets, to address access to medicines in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs), according to an Access to Medicine Foundation report

Good, but not good enough

However, much of the increased access to medicines has been made by a small percentage of pharmaceutical companies, and has overwhelmingly been focused on a handful of diseases. Of the 20 companies assessed by the Access to Medicine Foundation report, five companies (GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck KGaA, Novartis and Sanofi) were found to be conducting 63 percent of R&D on products urgently needed by people in LMICS; and nearly all of the R&D from these companies was focused on five diseases: malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, Chagas disease and leishmaniasis. 

While overall, pharmaceutical companies are entering LMIC markets, the industry still puts profits first.  Between 2008 and 2018 more medicines for profitable non-communicable diseases were developed for people in high-income countries, than medicines for diseases of poverty. Additionally, only four out of 20 pharmaceutical companies supported international trade agreements designed to ensure the world’s poor benefit from innovative medicines and vaccines. 

Closing the gaps

Public perception does matter to the pharmaceutical industry. According to the Reputation Institute, between 2017 and 2018 the pharmaceutical industry saw a 3.7 percent decline in its reputation score, and overall the industry had a significant decline in the public’s perception of industry transparency, openness and authenticity. The decline of public trust and confidence in the industry has also led to a decline in the public’s willingness to buy by eight percent between 2017 and 2018. One way to improve company reputation is through global health partnerships, and with recent negative media attention on the industry, between the opioid epidemic and price-fixing drugs, it is no secret that the industry could use a reputation boost.

So how can the global health community capitalize on this? The Access to Medicines Foundation has an effective recipe for engaging pharmaceutical companies in global health: one, setting clear priorities endorsed by global health experts; two, advocating for publicly funded mechanisms to reduce investment risk and shape less profitable markets; and three, finding sustainable funding support from multiple donors, including the government. One example of a mutually beneficial partnership is GAVI, which used pooled procurement mechanisms to encourage pharmaceutical companies to enter fragile markets in LMICs to strengthen the global vaccine market. 

In 2018 the reputation scores for the top 22 pharmaceutical companies were made public, creating an opportunity for global health organizations to engage poorly ranked companies. Global pharmaceutical sales are expected to reach over $1 trillion by 2022, so resources for global health partnerships are abundant, and organizations should consider targeting partnerships with companies impacted by negative public perception; turning a bad reputation into increased affordable access to life-saving medications.