Celebrate Research Week 2008

UBC-UAEM chair Andrew Gray gave the following talk at a UILO-organized event on global access to UBC technologies, during UBC’s Celebrate Research Week in March 2008. (See also: slides, video)

So hi everybody, thanks for coming, and thanks to the UILO for inviting me to speak to you today. My name’s Andrew, I’m a first-year medical student at UBC and I work with the local chapter of a student group called Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, or “you-aim”, which advocates for universities to do exactly the kind of thing that’s being done at UBC. I’ll start off by talking about why we ask for that.
This is Joseph, an HIV+ man from South Africa. In 2001, Joseph had late-stage AIDS, he was on the verge of death, and he wasn’t alone: the HIV prevalence in South Africa at that time was 1 in 4. In Canada, we’d been providing free universal HIV treatment since 1996, but since the drugs were patented, the price was over $10,000/year, far beyond the means of almost everyone in South Africa, so almost nobody was receiving treatment. This was the norm throughout the developing world.
Medecins Sans Frontieres wanted to change this: they aimed to open the first free HIV clinic in sub-Saharan Africa, and in order to treat more than a handful of people, they decided to seek price reductions for South Africa. One HIV drug they wanted to use was this one:
d4T. It had been discovered at Yale, so they approached Yale to request a price reduction. Yale said that legally, their hands were tied:
they had already licensed exclusive rights to a pharmaceutical company, Bristol-Meyers-Squibb.
Yale and BMS got a lot of negative press for this. Yale got together with BMS and agreed to cut the price.
The price in South Africa had been $10,000 a year.
The company immediately cut the price by 94%, and prices fell even further
once they allowed generic production shortly thereafter.
MSF opened its clinic, and people like Joseph were given a new lease on life.
This is Joseph with his little girl, just a few months later, restored to health by antiretrovirals. This was the first major concession on an HIV drug: it paved the way for treatment of millions of people in low-income countries.
This graph shows the dramatic increase in the number of people receiving HIV treatment in low and middle-income countries, a feat considered totally impossible just 10 years ago.
But of course this issue is not important just for AIDS: it’s a general problem. Despite all the incredible discoveries that medical research has made, these discoveries still fail to reach a lot of people: the number of people that die every year from treatable diseases is greater than 10 million. And most of those occur in low and middle income countries. It’s not just infectious diseases either: 80% of mortality from cardiovascular disease now occurs in low and middle-income countries. Cost of the treatment is certainly not the only barrier, but it’s clearly an important one, and one worth removing, if we can.
Back at Yale, students who had been involved in the d4T campaign learned that this problem is one where universities have an important role to play. But rather than trying to fight a PR battle after the fact, the students proposed a proactive solution: universities should include access provisions in their licenses right from the start. UAEM was born:
Today there are active chapters at about 35 different universities in Canada and the US, including (point) us.
Students at UBC got on board a couple years ago — that’s us —
and started doing some research and making friends in high places — that’s our advisory board. And in February last year, we managed to get a meeting with
these people — Stephen Toope, the president, John Hepburn, VP research, and Angus and Barbara from the UILO. We presented our ideas, and to our delight, they said they’d take us up on it! Two months later, they had a draft strategy to present, and we started hearing about examples of new technologies being licensed this way as early the summer. UBC is the first university in Canada to do anything like this, and only two in the US are doing anything similar — UC Berkeley and the University of Washington.
The news got out: a few local papers wrote about this new approach, as well as some student papers around the country… uh, this article is about a different group. This one here is about us.
But of course, it’s not just about getting your name in the paper. It’s about trying to provide everyone the same quality of life that we enjoy here; to give everyone the chance to live a life of dignity. And while affordable medical treatment is by no means a complete solution, it definitely helps; and importantly, it’s something that universities in particular are uniquely positioned to do. When I’m a doctor, I would ideally like to be able to provide the same standard of care to everyone, no matter where they live,
whether I’m caring for patients in Vancouver
or any other part of the world. I am very encouraged to see UBC show real leadership here and I sincerely hope that other institutions will take up this challenge as well:
to ensure that the benefits of the kind of important research we’ve seen tonight will reach as many people as possible,
and that the treatments of the future will not be needlessly denied, bringing us one step closer to that ideal world. Thank you!