Students forge new thinking on access to medicines and innovation


Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) is a promising and inspiring international student network focusing on access to medicines and biomedical innovation. They have a  strong presence in the US and Germany and are growing all over Europe with local chapters. Most of them are undergrad medical students even though there are law and global health students involved as well.


The conference entitled “Shooting up-Raising expectations about R&D” organised by the UK branch on 25 January 2013 in UCL had a great line-up of prominent speakers among whom Nobel laureate Sir John Hulston, Katy Athersuch (MSF Access Campaign), James Love and David Hammerstein ( The conference came at a very timely moment, just days after the remarks by Bayer CEO Decker who stated that a new cancer drug is not for Indians but for western patients who can afford it and in the midst of the pharmagate scandal in South Africa over Pharma lobbying against lower prices for life saving medicines.   Sir Robin Jacob, Professor of intellectual property Law at UCL opened the conference explaining that patents are not to be blamed for the problems we are faced with today in accessible and affordable medicines but instead patentes are fermenters of innovation. He also critisized compulsory-licensing as well as strict regulation but was unable to give any concrete answers  when asked about the serious access to medicines crisis in many parts of the world, rich and poor. He defended the wildly exaggerated 1bn myth regarding the cost of the development of a each new drug, belittled the contribution of pubic research funding and stood firmly by the view that there is no alternative solution to strong patent monopolies.  


All the other speakers opposed Sir Jacob´s strong pro-IPR stances and their over arching theme  was that public health should not be treated as any other commodity but as a common good which needs to be available to everyone. Many of the problems that societies have to cope with today, in terms of affordable, access to medicines, stem from the current IP-dominated medical innovation model which is obviously broken and is no longer delivering the medicnes people need.  To put it simply, patents create monopolies which skyrocket drug prices. It was also clear that access to affordable life-saving treatments is no longer a problem of the developing world as big pharmaceutical industries tend to present it. but It  affects affects large parts of the developed world including the US and Europe. As Sir Sulston put it “in improving justice in health, we contribute to the future of humanity”. Moreover, he emphasized the importance of scientific research as through science we understand ourselves better.In this respect, he sounded the alarm in relation to the fact that research carried out by universities is increasingly linked to and guided by commercial interests. This is why; he stressed a) the need to rebalance scientific research toward the public interest  and b) the promotion of open data and open science so as to fully take advantage of the potential of public investment. He criticized the fact that what is expected today from non-profit funding of research is actually making profit through patents. He added that this profit is not reinvested in further discovery but on the contrary, it is channelled into marketing, publicity and into coercing government and international officials.  

UAEM’s initiatives are very worthwhile and serve multiple purposes as  they fully support an open, health needs-driven innovation model that favour access to medicines as opposed to closed, market-driven patent monopolies.  Hundreds of future health professionals are forging a fairer future for affordable, high quality biomedical innovation.  They are trying to place patients before patents, health before profits, a moral imperative on which millions of lives depend.


Yannis Natsis, TACD

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