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Health care

Mirjam Gehrke/ db October 26, 2012

Large parts of the world still have inadequate access to a wide range of medical supplies. The pharmaceutical industry is only now discovering that emerging countries are future markets.

ARCHIV - ILLUSTRATION - Tabletten liegen auf dem Tisch einer Apotheke im brandenburgischen Briesen (Oder-Spree), aufgenommen am 16.03.2010. Die Versorgung älterer Menschen mit Arzneimitteln wird für Apotheker immer mehr zu einem wichtigen Thema. Foto: Patrick Pleul dpa/lbn (zu lbn vom 07.02.2012) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
ArzneimittelImage: picture-alliance/dpa

A billion people across the world do not receive adequate medical attention. In developing countries, cholera and tuberculosis - diseases that long ago lost their horror in the West - still often mean certain death. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), six million children under the age of five die every year due to a lack of medical care. Expensive modern medicine and the pharmaceutical industry's patent policies are among the reasons why.

Prices for new drugs, in particular, are "totally exorbitant," says Christian Wagner-Ahlfs of the BUKO pharmaceutical campaign: "It is a major problem that the companies do not reveal their actual research costs, so the prices are difficult to control."

The Federal Coordination of Internationalism, or BUKO, unites 130 German action and solidarity groups that work for the benefit of developing nations. The campaign was started with the aim of examining the activities of the German pharmaceutical industry in Third World countries.

people lying on cots in hospital Copyright: Braima Darame, DW Oktober 2012
Cholera epidemics break out in poorer countriesImage: DW

Less pricey medicine alone would not improve medical care in developing countries, however, says Norbert Gerbsch, deputy managing director of the Federation of German Industry (BPI). Gerbsch told Deutsche Welle he considers it their responsibility, too: "That is a challenge that can only be solved by development. There is not only a lack of inexpensive medicine in these countries; they also lack health infrastructure, such as doctors, logistics, supply, drugstores and diagnoses," he says. "It is a challenge that addresses all of society. Such deficits cannot be corrected ad hoc." Hunger and malnourishment also promote diseases, such as diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria, the BPI expert adds.

Tedious and expensive

On average, developing a new drug takes 10 to 12 years. While pharmaceutical companies do not detail the exact costs, they have floated figures of $600-800 million (462 to 616 million euros) needed to develop a new pharmaceutical agent.

The US consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen estimates actual costs for the development of a new drug at a maximum of $110 million. The huge difference stems from the fact that the companies factor in so-called "opportunity cost": the benefits a company could have had if it had invested its money in an alternative project.

man with safety glasses pouring sth into a bottle
Public funds are used to develop new drugsImage: Fotolia/Franz Pfluegl

The general public carries a good part of the cost, says Christian Wagner-Ahlfs. "More than half of the expense for pharmaceutical research worldwide is covered by public funds - taxpayers' money - disbursed at universities or by tax deductions the companies receive for their research," he told Deutsche Welle.

Just last month, ten leading pharmaceutical companies launched a network aimed at speeding up drug development and lowering costs: TransCelerate BioPharma. The initiative wants firms to agree on uniform standards and to cooperate more closely in early research phases and in areas where they are not yet competitors. Boehringer Ingelheim is the organization's only German member.

Research for affluent markets?

Wagner-Ahlfs of the BUKO pharma campaign is critical of the industry, saying it is only interested in diseases rich people get: "So-called 'neglected disease's are typical for poor countries: tropical infections and diseases like tuberculosis that hit low-income populations - diseases that practically do not exist in Germany any more and are thus of no interest to the commercially-oriented pharmaceutical industry," he says. "There has been practically no research in this field for the past decades."

Diabetes bus in Teheran. Quelle: MEHR
Free diabetes tests are offered in this bus in TeheranImage: MEHR

It looks like underdeveloped countries will remain of little interest to the pharmaceutical industry in the future; instead, the firms have discovered emerging markets as potential sales targets. Norbert Gerbsch argues that investment in new drugs must be refinanced: "That is why pharmaceutical companies specifically invest in certain research centers and programs. These markets are still developing, their economic potential is increasing," he says. "They are the markets of the future and that is how to tap them."

In emerging markets, such as India and Brazil, increasing affluence has already led to an increase in lifestyle diseases: diabetes, high blood pressure, as well as heart, liver and lung diseases