Big Pharma and Global Health

The increasing importance of the pharmaceutical industry in global health and development

Posted by Debbie Koh

Take a moment to think about the last time you bought some medication. Maybe you went to your local Duane Reade/CVS/RiteAid to pick up an over-the-counter drug. You might have debated over a brand name versus a generic, or what was covered by your insurance, but the whole process probably didn’t cause you too much anxiety. You probably don’t stop to think if your provider was able to prescribe that medication in the first place, if it was stored properly, or if those meds might even be a useless or possibly harmful counterfeit.

Now, place yourself in another setting. You know you need some medication and you walk into a pharmacy.  The shelves are pretty dusty and filled will medications, labeled and unlabeled. You describe what’s wrong to the guy behind the counter. He listens, and cuts off some tablets from a larger foil-wrapped strip. “Take these twice a day for one week,” he says. Are you thinking about some of those questions now?

For pharmaceutical companies, the developing world is an untapped market that is poised for growth. Recent developments, such as a landmark decision by India’s Supreme Court to reject a patent application for a cancer drug made by Novartis, seem to be protecting generic manufacturer’s ability to continue making low cost drugs available to this market. Other companies are trying to make their products available at competitive prices (the latest example: two name-brand HPV vaccines are now available for less than $5 per dose).

Creating a reliable pharmaceutical regulatory and distribution system hasn’t been a particularly trendy or popular priority in global health and development. But, as the focus around international aid shifts increasingly toward ownership and sustainability, it’s increasingly important to ensure that people can access high-quality, affordable medicines outside of donor-funded supply chains.

Debbie graduated from Wagner in 2010 with her MPA in Health Policy and Management, International Health. She returned to her native California in 2011 and currently works for Venture Strategies Innovations. Follow her on Twitter at @thedebkoh or connect via LinkedIn. All views expressed are her own.