For an example of the vast disparities in global access to medicine, consider the world’s recent coronavirus vaccination efforts.

The United States approved its first COVID-19 vaccine in late 2020; a little over two months later, developed nations had secured 57% of the global vaccine supply despite representing only 18% of the world’s population. Meanwhile, the International Rescue Committee has projected that no more than 20% of those living in low- and lower-middle–income countries will have access to vaccinations by year’s end.

These healthcare inequities predated the pandemic: the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded in 2017 that nearly 2 billion people had “no access to essential medicines.” However, COVID-19 has underscored the urgency of and systemic challenges to ensuring global access to healthcare.

Access to Medicine Is a Global Need

Universal access to “safe, effective, quality, and affordable essential medicines and vaccines” is a core element of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal No. 3: Good Health and Well-Being. According to research published in Health Policy and Planning, this access hinges on availability, affordability, country- and community-level accessibility, individual acceptance, and quality.

In the wake of the pandemic, the Brookings Institution emphasized that the private sector must assume a significant role in advancing broader global access to medicine. However, it stressed that successes will be limited unless initiatives commit to:

  • Investing in thorough data collection and analysis.
  • Measuring outcomes as rigorously as activity and output.
  • Collaborating with others to maximize resources and impact.

COVID-19 has elevated the stakes in other ways, too. The pandemic has derailed existing prevention and treatment initiatives, according to the Access to Medicine Foundation. For example, deaths resulting from HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis are poised to surge in coming years, especially among children. This reverses a decade of progress.

COVID-19 has underscored the urgency of and systemic challenges to ensuring global access to healthcare.

Healthcare Access Efforts Face Challenges

As with much in healthcare, increasing access to medicine proves challenging, even among programs with strong support.

The Switzerland-based Global Fund is dedicated to developing sustainable response systems to HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis. Yet it has found that many countries struggle with rigid bureaucracies, ongoing healthcare system reforms, and minimal private sector involvement.

With regard to COVID-19, a group of 150 institutional investors overseeing $14 trillion in assets pledged support for the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. The partnership engages with healthcare companies and governments to explore financing options while working to raise worldwide accessibility of resources and vaccines, including the WHO’s COVAX program.

Separately, more than 100 investors managing $18 trillion in assets have aligned with the broader efforts of the Access to Medicine Foundation, which identifies global access to medicine and antimicrobial resistance as material environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors for the pharmaceutical industry.

Ultimately, any program intending to deliver medicines and vaccines across the globe should consider adopting the three principles of the reporting platform Access Observatory: independence, transparency, and rigor.

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