GlaxoSmithKline has come top of a new analysis which rates 20 drugmakers and their ability to get their products to the world’s poorest people.

The Access to Medicines Foundation in Haarlem, the Netherlands says that the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies “differ strongly in their efforts to provide millions of people in low-income countries with better access to affordable drugs and vaccines”. Some are making solid strides, for example by developing new medicines against previously neglected diseases, but others are lagging behind in adapting similar policies.

The foundation has published its Access to Medicine Index and says that “rather than looking at the pharmaceutical industry as a black box”, it finds “good practices within individual companies and holds them up as shining examples to others,” said Wim Leereveld, the index’ founder. He adds that the analysis will also give governments, researchers and non-governmental organisations “that work to increase poor people’s access to healthcare the opportunity to find suitable industry partners”.

The first list puts GlaxoSmithKline at the top, followed by Novo Nordisk, Merck & Co, Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis. Bringing up the rear is Schering-Plough and the next four bottom-rated firms are (from 19th to 16th) are Teva, Wyeth, Pfizer and Ranbaxy.

The position of Novartis (4th) and Abbott Laboratories (12th) has raised eyebrows in certain quarters. The Swiss major was involved in a bitter case after India’s patent office’s decision to decline coverage for a new version of the leukaemia drug Glivec/Gleevec (imatinib) and Novartis’ decision to challenge the judgment led to criticism from a number of charities and other NGOs. Last March, Abbott said it will not market any new drugs in Thailand following the government’s decision to issue a compulsory license for the company’s HIV drug Kaletra (lopinavir/ritonavir).

The Access to Medicine Index rates “dozens of indicators grouped into eight main criteria”. These include companies’ management of policies increasing access, the amount of R&D in the ‘neglected diseases’ area, patenting and licensing policies and the use of fair pricing systems. “For global pharma companies, managing access to medicine is a complex and daunting challenge,” said Matthew Kiernan, chief executive of Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, which carried out the research.

He concluded by saying that “we view companies who do it best as better managed and more far-sighted overall, and therefore more attractive to strategic, long-term investors”.