Improving access to medicines can be enhanced by local production of pharmaceuticals in developing countries. But to do so, both the public and the private sector need to work together, said James Zhan, Director of UNCTAD's Division on Investment and Enterprise at the World Investment Forum's Policy Debate on Public Health.
Opening the session at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Mr. Zhan said that investments from both the private sector and government were needed to scale up access to essential medicines, such as antiretrovirals (ARVs) for the treatment of HIV and AIDS.
The meeting, which was co-organized with UNAIDS, featured a keynote speech by Michel Sidibé, its Executive Director, and brought together eminent panelists from manufacturers of medicines in developing countries, civil society and public-private partnerships.
The session was moderated by noted CCTV Correspondent and UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador James Chau.
As illustrated by the current example of Ebola, there is an urgent need for a fundamental shift in the approach to public health, emphasized Michel Sidibé in his speech. Considering the economic and social impact of the virus on affected countries, "health can no longer be seen as a cost or an expense. It is an investment for the future".
Sidibé expressed his satisfaction with the ongoing cooperation between UNAIDS, UNCTAD, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization to spur change.
At the domestic level, coherence among policies in areas such as health and industrial development are needed to make local pharmaceutical production an effective tool for improved access to medicines, said Dr. Lindiwe Makubalo, delivering a special message on behalf of South Africa's Minister of Health.
Health security was mentioned by various panelists as the most important reason for developing countries to promote local pharmaceutical production. Population size in countries such as Brazil requires local production capacity.
According to a representative of a state-owned pharmaceutical manufacturer in Thailand, unaffordable prices were the main reason for the country's government to invest in state-driven local production. A representative from the Ugandan pharmaceutical industry said that the Ugandan government's decision to invest in local production was motivated by its long-term view of medical needs in Africa.
Several panelists and commentators observed the increased acceptance of local production among stakeholders as a sensible policy and commercial option, stressing the importance of private-public partnerships to ensure commercial sustainability while simultaneously meeting health priorities. Striking a balance between commercial interests and policy priorities is especially important in the case of market failure.
Alternative investment models such as patent pooling were identified as key to ensure access to the latest state of the art technologies. Several panelists referred to the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plan for Africa as an example of government commitment to local production of quality affordable medicines.
The panel agreed that particular challenges to access-improving local production were related to weak domestic regulatory capacity; the cost for producers of capacity upgrading; and access to finance.
Overall, the extent of government involvement varies according to domestic circumstances. Both private and public investment in production capacity and enabling policy frameworks will be equally important in ensuring that local manufacture leads to greater access to medicines and other important health technologies.