Making Medications Affordable Worldwide

May 22, 2012
By Mari Megias, Alumni Relations and Resource Development

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every day 21,000 children die before their fifth birthday. Many of these children die from commonly treatable diseases such as pneumonia, malaria, and diarrhea.

The reasons behind this disturbing fact are many, as are the potential solutions. John-Arne Røttingen MC/MPA 2012, a physician from Norway who serves as chair of the WHO’s Consultative Expert Working Group on Research and Development: Financing and Coordination (CEWG), is working to change one key element: the high cost of drug development.

Røttingen says pharmaceutical companies lack an economic incentive to address treatments for many of the diseases that affect people primarily in developing regions. “If the price of health products continues to reflect the full cost of R&D, products will never be affordable for those who need them most. We therefore need to do two things: to delink the cost of research from the price of the product, and to develop mechanisms in addition to intellectual property rights to incentivize research investment in these diseases.”

At the sixty-fifth session of the World Health Assembly in May, CEWG presented several proposals that aim to meet the specific needs of developing countries. Now, Røttingen expects the WHO general assembly to consider the report for further analysis before the organization takes a formal position on whether a treaty should be negotiated to address R&D issues related to the health needs of poor populations in developing countries.

CEWG, which also included a representative from the pharmaceutical industry and a patent lawyer, advocates for open access to research that involves the health needs of developing countries. In addition, the group calls for drug companies to use patent pools to coordinate financial resources and reduce an individual company’s risk. CEWG also calls for increased governmental and philanthropic funding, arguing that all countries should commit to spending at least .01 percent of GDP on research to develop technologies that will improve health care in developing countries.

“Lots of solutions have been proposed for the past 10 years,” says Rottingen, who asks, “How do you correct the market failure in order to create innovations that meet the health needs of developing countries, which don’t have the ability to pay the high prices that normally come with health care products?” He says CEWG believes market forces should be used whenever possible, including open competition in drug production, to achieve competitive and affordable prices and avoid monopoly pricing. “The problem is that the patent system doesn’t provide the necessary incentives,” he says. “Because the public good is underprovided for in the private market, you need to incentivize private companies to address the needs of developing nations. We need to develop a supplementary system.”

Røttingen, who came to the Kennedy School to gain a better understanding of policymaking, wants to bridge the medical and public policy worlds. After graduating from the Kennedy School in May, he will serve as visiting professor at Harvard School of Public Health, where he hopes to use his Kennedy School training to contribute to improving global health policies and governance.

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John-Arne R√łttingen posed picture

John-Arne Røttingen MC/MPA 2012

“How do you correct the market failure in order to create innovations that meet the health needs of developing countries, which don’t have the ability to pay the high prices that normally come with health care products?," asks John-Arne Røttingen.