WHO and WHA Delegates Must Address Supply Chain Issues

Leading up to the World Health Assembly in May, IP Progress will be highlighting the complex barriers impeding patients’ access to life-saving medicines. The World Health Organization (WHO) wants to improve access to medicines, yet its work has often focused narrowly on controversial policies regarding intellectual property and the price of patented medicines. Global health leaders must ensure that the WHO tackles broadly the many obstacles that stand between patients and their medicines, such as poor infrastructure, taxes and tariffs. Supply chain challenges are among the most significant barriers. 

Moving innovative medicines from the manufacturer to the customer may sound like a simple task. But the health care supply chain is a complex web of organizations, people, technology, activities, information and resources across international, national and local levels – all with multiple actors handling, holding and distributing products. This complexity becomes highly problematic in under-resourced and developing regions. To ensure access in these parts of the world, the upcoming World Health Assembly (WHA) in late May should address improving global supply chains of medicines, instead of wrongly blaming intellectual property protections for impeding patients’ access to medicines.

In many places around the world, weak supply chains impede potentially lifesaving treatments and cures from reaching those who need them. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 25 to 50 percent of vaccines are wasted annually due to supply chain issues – never reaching patients in need. A recent study found that supply chain weaknesses – along with other systematic barriers – are most strongly associated with poor access to medicines. For example, researchers have found that Kerala, India – a state on the southern coast of the country – faces a shortage of 130 medicines on the Essential Medicines List and Rationalized Drug List due in part to supply chain management issues.

Despite the many unaddressed supply chain barriers limiting access to medicines worldwide, the upcoming WHA is not expected to focus on these issues. Global health leaders are more likely to follow the same dead-end approach of attacking intellectual property, when in reality, intellectual property promotes global access to innovative treatments and cures.

Innovators are fortunately devising solutions related to medicine handling and delivery – particularly in remote areas that lack access to consistent temperature control and/or cargo containers. For example:

  • The Arktek PSD (Passive Storage Device) is a super-insulated container that enables safe storage of vaccines in freezing or near-freezing temperatures for 35 days or more, using just ice packs.
  • PATH, a non-profit dedicated to health care innovation, developed a vaccine vial monitor to determine if a vaccine is kept at a safe temperature during transportation. To date, the vial monitor has saved millions of vaccine doses from being discarded unnecessarily.
  • Project C.U.R.E.’s Cargo program delivers cargo containers of medical donations, ensuring under-resourced and isolated hospitals, clinics and community health centers in developing nations receive critical supplies.

While innovation has helped drive progress towards delivering more medicines and other vital products to people worldwide, supply chain issues will continue to significantly impede broader access to medicines. The WHO, with its unique reach and mandate, should work with public and private sector stakeholders to find practical solutions to these challenges.  Attacking IP rights would only hinder future progress and make it harder to find common ground.