The UK Government has drawn up a set of guidelines, with the help of the pharmaceutical industry, aimed at increasing access to essential medicines for the 1.7 billion people around the world who cannot get the drugs they need.

The framework document is intended to provide practical guidance for pharmaceutical companies on how they can increase access by working in partnership with other stakeholders, such as national governments, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and multilateral organisations including the World Bank and World Health Organisation.

The recommendations in the document include the adoption of differential pricing, where medicines are sold at lower prices in developing country markets, but it adds that market segmentation to avoid leakage and diversion is vital if differential pricing is to work. Other recommendations include increased investment in research and development for diseases affecting developing countries, and “working to support health and development goals set by developing countries.”

The new publication has grown out of the conclusions of the Working Group on Increasing Access to Essential Medicines in the Developing World, a high-level group convened by the UK government in 2002, consisting of representatives of Industry, Government, the European Commission, developing countries, the WHO and World Trade Organisation, as well as charitable foundations and academic institutes [[02/12/02c]].

In its final report to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Group concluded that voluntary differential pricing is likely to get drugs to more people who need them much more quickly than compulsory licensing. For its own part, the UK Government has committed to various measures, including increasing its overseas aid budget to £6.5 billion pounds by 2007/8 and setting aside £1.5 billion for treating patients with HIV.

The move comes at a time when aid agencies are concerned that supplies of low-cost generic drugs from India, which supplies 50% of the antiretroviral drugs used by Africans with HIV, could be affected by the country’s new patent regime. The WHO estimates that over 10.5 million lives could be saved every year in the developing world if people had the medicines they required.

Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Merck & Co, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and the American Pharmaceutical Group were involved in drawing up the guidance.