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ICMJE criteria for authorship read and met: GSR. Agree with the manuscript's results and conclusions: GSR. Wrote the first draft of the paper: GSR.
The human rights responsibilities of drug companies have been considered for years by nongovernmental organizations, but were most sharply defined in a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, submitted to the United Nations General Assembly in August 2008. The “Human Rights Guidelines for Pharmaceutical Companies in relation to Access to Medicines” include responsibilities for transparency, management, monitoring and accountability, pricing, and ethical marketing, and against lobbying for more protection in intellectual property laws, applying for patents for trivial modifications of existing medicines, inappropriate drug promotion, and excessive pricing. Two years after the release of the Guidelines, the PLoS Medicine Debate asks whether drug companies are living up to their human rights responsibilities. Sofia Gruskin and Zyde Raad from the Harvard School of Public Health say more assessment is needed of such responsibilities; Geralyn Ritter, Vice President of Global Public Policy and Corporate Responsibility at Merck & Co. argues that multiple stakeholders could do more to help States deliver the right to health; and Paul Hunt and Rajat Khosla introduce Mr. Hunt's work as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to the highest attainable standard of health, regarding the human rights responsibilities of pharmaceutical companies and access to medicines.
This is the second of three viewpoints examining the question of whether pharmaceutical companies are living up to their human rights responsibilities.
As a global health care company, Merck believes that helping to address global health challenges is a strategic and humanitarian imperative. While States bear primary responsibility for the realization of the right to health, it requires a genuine effort among many actors, including governments, multilateral organizations, nongovernmental organizations, health care professionals, and the pharmaceutical industry. This collaboration is particularly important given the many complex factors that adversely affect the right to health, such as poverty, poor infrastructure and distribution channels, corruption, lack of health care education and awareness, inadequate public health services, and lack of adequately trained health care professionals.
The pharmaceutical industry can and should leverage its expertise to help States achieve the full realization of the right to health and should work in partnership with them and other actors to help remove barriers that stand between patients and the health care they need. It is the right thing to do not only from a moral perspective, but from a long-term commercial perspective as well.
The primary role of the pharmaceutical industry in realizing the right to health is through its core capabilities of researching, developing, and producing medicines and vaccines to address unmet medical needs, and in helping to ensure their appropriate distribution. In this role over the past century, the industry has helped to save or improve the quality of millions of lives. For example, the industry's role in developing and distributing vaccines for diseases such as measles has supported the near elimination of that disease in many regions of the world . Pharmaceutical companies have also created and delivered antiretrovirals that have saved millions of lives in the global fight against HIV/AIDS .
In fulfilling this primary role, the industry must of course act in a responsible manner – protecting employee safety, working to reduce its environmental impact in local communities, and safeguarding the safety and privacy of clinical trial participants. Membership of many companies in the UN Global Compact reflects this commitment to responsible behavior.
The role of the pharmaceutical industry in promoting access to medicines has received particular attention. In recent years, pharmaceutical companies have strengthened their focus on ways they can support and promote access to health, especially in developing countries, where the needs and challenges are so significant. Areas where the pharmaceutical industry can play an important role, working with States and other partners, include the following:
While States must continue to bear primary responsibility for the realization of the right to health, its attainment requires a multi-stakeholder approach. Everyone has a role to play and everyone can do more.
Pharmaceutical companies could better assess their role and monitor their contributions to advancing the achievement of the right to health. To this end, more companies could document their contributions to the health-related UN Millennium Development Goals. Several companies are working with the Danish Institute for Human Rights to develop a sector-specific human rights assessment tool that will examine core activities—including research and development, registration, pricing, licensing, and donations—that are fundamental to improving access both to medicines and health care overall. Such efforts should continue. Increasing transparency is another area where notable progress has been made by the industry but opportunities for improvement still exist.
Progress is possible, but it will require the international community coming together to support States' obligations and committing to meaningful dialogue on the true barriers and drivers for realizing the right to health.
The help of Ms. Zoe Bell of Zoe Bell Consulting, USA, in researching this piece and Ms. Maggie Kohn of Merck & Co. in preparing the manuscript is gratefully acknowledged.
Geralyn Ritter is Vice President, Global Public Policy and Corporate Responsibility at Merck & Co. and holds equity in Merck.
No specific funding was received for this piece.
Provenance: Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.