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Innovation in healthcare and access to medicines

© Fotolia, Dmytro Tolokonov

A two-day conference gathered key actors and policy-makers in Brussels in order to discuss challenges and opportunities for innovation in healthcare. Access to patent information and local capacity building emerged as two of the most interesting topics explored during the session entitled ‘Improving access to medicines in Africa, where do the solutions lie: At home or abroad?’

The conference on ‘Innovation in Healthcare without Borders’ was organised by the European Commission in close collaboration with the major European industrial and patient associations. One of the sessions, moderated by Nathalie Moll, Secretary General of EuropaBio and Clive Ondari, Coordinator of the Department of Essential Medicines at the World Health Organisation (WHO), focused on innovative approaches for improving access to medicines in Africa.

The Medicines Patent Pool for the treatment of HIV-positive patients has been up and running since late 2010. Patents are registered here and can then be licensed out to pharmaceutical companies. As Sandeep Juneja, Business Development Director of Medicines Patent Pool, explained, it means that “generics have one place to go to access licences” and “provides timely access to intellectual property, legal certainty and a one stop shop”. He suggested that the European Commission could help by encouraging patent holders to join the pool.

Under its initiative 'Corporate Responsibility in the field of Pharmaceuticals', the European Commission set up a Platform on Access to Medicines in Developing Countries with a focus on Africa (see box). One of the working groups brings together all key stakeholders to explore the possibilities for improving the access to patent information. This is one of the essential challenges for better access to medicines in developing countries.

Increasing access to quality medicines

A whole slew of issues emerged during the session on improving access to medicines in Africa, ranging from strengthening the regulatory environment to local production capacity building in African countries. The importance of a holistic approach to the issue was emphasised by various speakers.

“Access to drugs is complex and requires action on many fronts,” said Juergen Reinhardt, Senior Industrial Development Officer of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), who added that “what has been done so far is not enough, is fragmented, piecemeal, scattered and often short term”.

Reinhardt also argued that there is a “growing consensus on the favourable role of local pharmaceutical production for both health and economic/industrial outcomes”.

“It makes sense to align with existing local pharmaceutical production frameworks,” he said. He suggested anchoring capability-building initiatives with existing broad-based approaches owned by Africa. He also noted that the African Union Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plan for Africa (PMPA) needs partners for its accelerated implementation. “There may well be space for the Commission to play a role here,” he said.

Evan Lee, Vice President for Global Health Programmes and Access at Eli Lilly, pointed to the main successes of the company’s multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) partnership in South Africa:

  • Improved patient access to safe, high quality drugs, manufactured locally in high-burden MDR-TB countries.
  • Beneficial impact for local manufacturers in terms of new production and technical capacity, employee skills development (with Eli Lily staff providing expertise and mentoring), and a potential revenue stream (sales will allow profits to sustain an ongoing reinvestment in local staff and facilities).

He argued that the initiative supports the country’s industrial policy of retaining and developing critical skills and unique technologies, reduces dependency on imported products and provides export opportunities for the pharmaceutical sector while addressing a critical public health need.

Martin Oteba from the Ministry of Health in Uganda gave the example of a proposed consortium, composed of the national drug authority, two universities in Uganda and an international NGO interface platform, which is called Procela and which is aiming to improve quality assessment and quality control. He suggested Procela could operate as a medium for sharing innovations, particularly with the European Commission. “The country is looking at gaps and how they can be filled,” he said.

Pharmaceuticals and Corporate Responsibility

The platform on Access to Medicines in Africa started its work in 2011 and aims at pooling resources and capabilities from key stakeholders like the African Union, public (health) organisations, the European and African pharmaceutical industry, NGOs and patient organisations in order to facilitate access to medicines in developing countries.

The stakeholders collaborate in two working groups:

  • The project group on patent information is working on setting up a user-friendly and freely accessible system where data on medicine patents can easily be retrieved
  • The second group focuses on local capacity-building in African countries. It is committed to exploring possibilities for concrete initiatives that will support the building of capacities for distribution channels, local production and clinical trials.


'Food and Healthcare Industries, Biotechnology' Unit
Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry

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