An estimated two billion people lack the medicines they need. The 2016 Access to Medicines Index analyzes pharmaceutical companies’ efforts to improve access to medicines, vaccines and diagnostics for low- and middle-income countries. As we wrote in December, the Index ranks the top 20 research-based pharmaceutical companies on transparency, innovation, commitment and performance, as well as progress across a number of key technical areas.

In addition to ranking pharmaceutical companies, the 2016 Index also examined 22 diseases and conditions in need of new products, as identified by Policy Cures. These products offer little commercial incentive for pharmaceutical companies because the target consumers have little money to pay for them.

The companies analyzed in the 2016 Index are currently working on 151 urgently needed, low-incentive products, with much of the attention going to malaria (35 projects), HIV/AIDS (23) and tuberculosis (21). Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) including schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis and continue to receive comparatively little attention. Even dengue, a disease that threatens half the world’s population, is the subject of only nine research and development (R&D) projects. In brighter news, companies are increasing their investments into medicine for Chagas disease, an NTD that affects 8 million people and kills an estimated 10,000 people every year. There are now 16 projects underway to address this disease.

Nearly three-quarters of the high-priority, low-incentive products in the pipeline are being developed by just six of the top 20 research-based pharmaceutical companies, led by GlaxoSmithKline with 32 projects. However, these companies aren’t going it alone. The Index found that 67 percent of the R&D projects for urgently needed products with little commercial potential are being conducted in partnership with other companies or organizations, as compared to 14 percent of other R&D projects. This difference is significant and illustrates the value of collaboration in the absence of traditional market incentives.

As seen in the chart below, Policy Cures identified 84 product gaps for the 22 diseases included in the Index. Companies are currently addressing 31 of these gaps. In the absence of a significant acceleration of private sector investment, “we need another set of players,” says Sabin President Dr. Peter Hotez. 

Image source: Access to Medicines Index 2016

Non-profit product development partnerships, or PDPs, could be the answer. PDPs bring together public- and private-sector institutions to research, develop and accelerate access to essential health interventions affecting lower-income countries. One such organization is the Sabin PDP, headed by Dr. Hotez. For more than 15 years, the Sabin PDP has pioneered the development and testing of low-cost vaccines to prevent and treat NTDs and emerging viral infections. Vaccines for seven of the 22 diseases highlighted in the Index are in Sabin’s development pipeline. In 2015, the Sabin PDP began the first clinical trial in humans for a vaccine candidate to prevent schistosomiasis, tackling an urgent product gap that has not been addressed by the pharmaceutical industry.

Sabin helps address product gaps for dengue, diarrheal diseases, typhoid and paratyphoid by convening researchers to improve cross-sector collaboration and catalyze progress in the development and implementation of new and under-utilized vaccines.

Pharmaceutical companies committed to improving global access to medicine have demonstrated a willingness to collaborate in the interest of the world’s poorest people. The early-phase research and development work being conducted by organizations like the Sabin PDP could be the key to filling high-priority product gaps and bringing life-saving health interventions to the people who need them.