Generic drugs: The right time, right place, right price

  • Lelio Marmora
  • Updated: Apr 17, 2016 22:53 IST
Stronger national health programmes also helped extend the reach of affordable medicines. (Kalpak Pathak/HT Photo)

The rolling back of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria over the past 15 years is a story of triumph over adversity in the realm of public health. While the three global health pandemics are far from over, progress since the turn of the millennium has been remarkable and beyond the dreams of even the most optimistic health experts.

In that time, the number of deaths from HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria have halved from 6 million in 2000 to 3 million today. Progress against HIV/AIDS has been particularly striking in sub-Saharan Africa. Average life expectancy, which in some African countries plunged by the year 2000 to 35 as HIV/AIDS spread like wildfire, is on the rise again. Remarkably, 16 million people living with HIV are now on antiretroviral treatment, up from just 1.6 million in 2006.

This turnaround was no accident of history. It was spurred by visionary political leadership, galvanising a big increase in funding over two decades that has brought about a dramatic increase in availability of effective new treatments.

Read | No drugs to treat XDR-TB in children in city

UNITAID and India’s pharmaceutical manufacturers have played a big part in this success story. As the main supplier of affordable medicines of assured quality, Indian generic manufacturers have led the way by driving high performance and ramping up productive capacity. Innovation and high-volume manufacture has made generic medicines the pharmaceuticals of choice in the developing world.

Barely a decade ago, HIV treatment was expensive and out of reach for most people living with HIV in developing countries. Generics have played a key role, bringing down antiretroviral treatment costs from $15,000 to $100 a year. HIV treatments costing less than a dollar a day have been made possible by the Indian generic drugs industry.

Stronger national health programmes also helped extend the reach of affordable medicines.

Today, India has developed a powerful and dynamic industry that is socially responsible.

UNITAID collaborates with Indian generic manufacturers to develop more affordable medicines to fight HIV and TB.

Read | New arsenal to fight tuberculosis

We invest in the development and the opening up of markets for health innovations. We do this by funding the final stages of research and development of drugs, helping to design guidelines for their use, to conduct operational research, and to deal with intellectual property rights issues. With the support of UNITAID funding, a new medication or public health technology can reach markets in developing countries quickly at an affordable price.

The challenges are formidable: Three million people are dying every year from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

TB is curable but many patients lack access to effective diagnosis while no new drugs have reached the market for 40 years. Malaria is still claims 584,000 lives a year. And across the three diseases, growing resistance to drugs and insecticides threatens to blunt the public health response.

The rate of increase in investments in these three diseases, which surged over the past 20 years, is slowing. That puts the onus on collaboration and innovation to achieve more with scarce resources. Robust market incentives and competition can save lives. Only by working together, can we unleash greater innovation to end HIV, TB and other diseases for good.

Read | HIV cure could be only a few years away, scientists say

Lelio Marmora is executive director, UNITAID

The views expressed are personal

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