Distributing medicine worldwide

Panel considers McGill’s collaborative role in global accessibility initiatives

Last May, Kishor Wasan and Ellen Wasan at the University of British Columbia (UBC) were able to make their drug for leishmaniasis – a parasite-borne infection – available to people in developing countries, thanks to the global access policies adopted by the university. This particular licensing agreement, negotiated between UBC and iCo Therapeutics, allows iCo to develop the drug to treat fungal infections and sell it in the developed world, on the condition that they also develop the leishmaniasis formulation and sell it at a reduced price in developing countries.

A third of the world’s population lacks access to essential medicines – drugs that easily satisfy the health needs of the majority – and most of them are found in sub-Saharan Africa and in India. To further this deficit, there is a 10/90 gap where only 10 per cent of the money spent globally on health and medical research is spent on the diseases and problems that affect the poorest 90 per cent of the world. Universities can play a role in reducing this gap by exploring medical innovations that have benefits for the poorest populations, but also by making their medical innovations affordable and available to those populations.

A panel discussion on global access to McGill’s health innovations, held Tuesday evening, led to clashing opinions with regard to the role the University should play. While there was consensus among the panellists that universities have a social responsibility to ensure that research be made accessible, there was disagreement over whether McGill should formally adopt a policy incorporating the principles of global access and equitable licensing.

Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, a panellist and president of the Board for Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), explained that principles of equitable licensing and global access make universities think harder about the potential benefits of their innovations in resource-limited settings, and how these benefits can be realized.

“Ten-million people in developing countries [die] every year for lack of essential medicines…. So we have a request…that every university-developed technology with potential for further development into a drug, vaccine, or medical diagnostic should be licensed with a concrete and transparent strategy to make affordable versions available in resource-limited countries for essential medical care,” Kiddell-Monroe said.

Panellist John DiMaio, manager of the Life Sciences branch of McGill’s Office of Technology Transfer (OTT), is responsible for the out-licensing of biomedical technologies, biopharmaceuticals, and medical devices that emerge from McGill. He argued that McGill still practices these principles without a written policy.

“[The] fact that McGill has not formally adopted any of the principles…doesn’t mean that it is oblivious to their operations. Every case that comes in [to our office] is subject to that mindset…whether or not the university policy actually has inscribed within it principles of equitable licensing,” DiMaio said.

In reference to the development of the leishmaniasis drug at UBC, Kiddell-Monroe argued that explicit policies are necessary. She said that these policies provided the incentive for the Wasans to further explore their anti-fungal drugs to see if they might also be active against diseases that affect developing countries – from there, the Wasans discovered that their anti-fungal drugs could also fight leishmaniasis.

Michael Huynh, an event coordinator for UAEM (McGill Chapter) and Law III student, agreed that global access principles stimulate researchers and administrators to think beyond the conventional uses of their innovations.

“If you don’t have the OTT officers looking actively for how the research could have potential benefits in low- and middle-income countries, then commercial opportunities for these drugs, which could have a huge global impact, might be missed,” Huynh said.

DiMaio reminded the audience that pharmaceutical companies have to be engaged with and buy into the process of negotiating equitable licenses. He expressed concern that discussions with private industry might be complicated with the adoption and implementation of these policies.

In an email to The Daily, however, Angus Livingstone, managing director of UBC’s University-Industry Liaison Office, confirmed that this fear is unfounded. According to Livingstone, no company has walked away from a potential deal with UBC because of the global access principles it adopted in late 2007.

“One of the beauties of the principles is that they serve as a good starting point for discussions without being prescriptive,” Livingstone wrote. “By engaging companies in a dialogue, we can better understand their concerns and look for creative solutions.”

With McGill’s Intellectual Property Policy currently under review, student groups at McGill, including UAEM, the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), and the McGill Global AIDS Coalition, have been working to push the University to include equitable licensing principles in the new policy.

Following the announcement last Monday that Harvard University and Yale University, among others, signed a statement of intent to enact global access principles, panel organizers had hoped that McGill administrators would follow suit.

However, after the panel discussions, Oline Twiss, Law IV student and a member of the HRWG, remained unsure where McGill stands.

“I am not confident at this point that there’s a commitment to [adopting these principles]. It sounds like maybe in practice it happens at an ad-hoc basis,” Twiss said.

According to Huynh, the next step for student groups will be to formulate a policy and present it to Principal Heather Munroe-Blum with the hope that it be adopted in the document, which will eventually come before Senate. UAEM has also presented a motion that will be presented at the next Post Graduate Students’ Society council meeting, affirming the graduate students’ support for the adoption of equitable licensing policies.