Pharmaceutical companies "continue to inch forward" to improve access to medicines in poorer countries, said a report published by the Access to Medicine Foundation, a Netherlands-based nonprofit organisation.
It said there has been progress, but that progress is slow. And profit appears still to be the main driver for research and development (R&D) in medicines and vaccines.
The report said that most of the pharmaceutical industry's products approved since 2018 have targeted "more profitable non-communicable diseases than less profitable communicable diseases." The 2021 analysis showed that only two recently approved products target neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). They include dengue, rabies, trachoma, yaws and guinea-worm disease. The latter two have been identified as candidates for disease eradication or disease control.
Non-communicable diseases, such as cancers, continue to dominate R&D at the top companies. Cancers account for more than two-thirds of all projects. Research into maternal and neonatal health conditions was by 1% of all R&D projects.
On the current COVID-19 pandemic, it reported that the "industry only mobilized once it became clear that the outbreak affected rich as well as poor countries," because that opened up the potential for "substantial recurring pharmaceutical revenues."
"The state of infectious disease research today is, if I can put it mildly, on thin ice," said Dr. Jayasree Iyer, executive director of the Access to Medicine Foundation, explained. "It's heavily reliant on public funds and the goodwill of a few pharmaceutical companies. Many companies have actually left infectious disease R&D."
Access to Medicine's findings also show so-called "empty pipelines" for 10 out of 16 of the emerging infectious diseases in the world. Basically, nothing's happening there — no research, no development. One such example, said Iyer, is Nipah, an infectious disease that transmits from animals to humans, a "zoonotic" virus. It has been found in Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa, with recent outbreaks affecting Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh, India and Thailand. And there is no vaccine.