Hopkins: increase access to life-saving drugs

Johns Hopkins can do better in its licensing policies of essential medicines.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct affiliation of contributor Kevin Burns. 

Johns Hopkins University's mission statement is "to bring the benefits of discovery to the world," and last week it was recognized for living up to that mission. The 2015 University Report Card: Equity and Biomedical Research ranked Hopkins first among 59 leading North American universities. The Report Card (globalhealthgrades.org) was published by Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), an international student-led non-profit, and was endorsed by leading global health organizations and activists, including Doctors Without Borders and Paul Farmer, founding director of Partners in Health.

UAEM's 2015 University Report Card emphasizes work among the top biomedical research institutions that specifically addresses and/or impacts the access and innovation gaps in global health. Hopkins and its Office of Technology Transfer are to be commended for earning an overall grade of A-, though more needs to be done to address these gaps at the university level. Hopkins has shown marked progress since the first report card, in which it ranked third, in its willingness to be transparent about policies and practices concerning access to medicines, research on neglected diseases (including aspects of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria) and educational and practical opportunities for students in neglected areas of global health.

The Report Card ranks universities in three key areas: innovation, access and empowerment. The focus of each area respectively is: university research investments in diseases primarily affecting low- and middle-income countries; licensing policies that determine the affordability of new medicines produced from research findings; and educational initiatives to teach students about global health inequities.

So how can Hopkins earn an A+? One major area where Hopkins needs to improve is global access licensing (GAL). Best practice in GAL entails promoting generic, as opposed to brand name, production of medicines developed from university research, so that prices are more affordable when these drugs reach the market. Hopkins currently has an opportunity to do just this, if it makes the right decisions in its negotiations concerning the licensing of Sutezolid, a drug that has shown promise for the treatment of tuberculosis.

The Ebola epidemic recently made painfully clear the human toll of global inequities in access to medicines and health care. These challenges persist for numerous conditions that rarely grab international headlines. In low- and middle-income countries, many essential medicines are available only at prices equivalent to several days' wages. And often the necessary course of treatment requires repeated purchases at unattainable prices. Life-saving medications are thus mostly out of reach for the vast majority of children and adults who require them.

Universities play a critical role in developing medicines for diseases typically endemic in low- and middle-income countries, and in making them available at prices these populations can afford. Pharmaceutical companies underinvest in research for these diseases because the potential for profit is substantially lower than that of new medicines developed to treat diseases common in high-income countries. Universities can help to fill this research gap. By negotiating widespread access to drugs resulting from their discoveries, universities like JHU can help to ensure innovative, lifesaving medicines are ultimately made available at affordable prices.

Hopkins should be proud of its No. 1 ranking in this year's report card and the positive changes the university has made over the past two years to earn this grade. However, all of the universities evaluated in the report card can do better. We encourage Hopkins and other academic institutions to aim even higher and earn an A+ grade, by increasing access to essential medicines for all.

Alexandra Greenberg (agreen65@jhu.edu) is a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health as well as a Coordinating Committee Member for UAEM North America. Contributing to this article are Krycia Cowling, also a student at the School of Public Health, and Dr. Kevin Burns, a general preventive resident also at the School of Public Health.

 

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