Dreams and pragmaticism: improving access to medication

The first virtual version of the Amsterdam Life Sciences Café focused on a timely subject: how to improve access to medication – such as a potential coronavirus vaccine – in a sustainable way. Conclusion: while a global pandemic is a horrible situation, it can help us chart out a fairer, brighter and, yes, global future.

The time for innovation is now

While the subject – how to better improve access to medication in a sustainable manner – had already been set before the COVID-19 crisis hit, the subject has gained traction with it. At the first virtual version of the Amsterdam Life Sciences Café on 4 June 2020, the two speakers and more than 50 Zoom attendees agreed: the time for healthcare innovation is now.

“Access to medication, particularly new medication, is a very relevant subject,” observes Jeroen Maas of The Amsterdam Economic Board, one of the event’s co-organisers. “As we worry about the dreaded second peak of the coronavirus, everyone in life sciences is asking the same questions: Will we have a vaccine in time? Can we produce enough of it? Will it be available to all?”

Access to medication as basic human right

For the first speaker, the answer to that last question should be obvious: healthcare is a basic human right and therefore everyone should have access to any medication they need. Sjaak Vink is founder and CEO of health startup TheSocialMedwork, which links patients with new medications that have already been approved elsewhere.

With no medical background, Vink’s motivation is deeply personal. Years ago, a seriously ill friend living in Germany died before he could access US-developed medicine that may have helped him. “And as the last months have illustrated, everyone’s life will be influenced by illness in such a profound way at one point – even beyond this pandemic.”

Act locally, think globally

Vink believes that if one reputable regulatory body passes a drug, other bodies don’t need to take years to do it over again. “For sustainability, you have to look beyond the Netherlands. People were shocked a month ago when Trump wanted to have a potential medicine exclusively for the US. But just this past week, the Netherlands announced joining forces with France, Italy and Germany – to share any discoveries with each other first. I see this as pretty much the same thing,” says Vink.

“We have to think globally. A single country cannot take it all on themselves – the research, the testing, the production, all the logistics. TheSocialMedWork shows the global approach works. Even with all the shut borders, we’ve been able to send thousands of different medicines to 85 different countries.”

The good in a bad situation

In a strange way, the pandemic’s timing is perfect. “Five or ten years ago, it would have been a disaster,” says Vink. “Now the internet works very well. Just look at this meeting! People and businesses can continue to work together – whether it’s on a vaccine, cancer treatments or rare diseases. We can do this! We’re super connected! So how can we reorganise everything to work better?”

Feet on the Dutch ground

Peter Bertens, the second speaker, is a senior advisor at Association Innovative Medicines – the national industry association for innovative pharmaceutical companies. Offering a more down-to-earth Dutch perspective, he notes how much work still must be done: besides COVID-19, up to 8,000 diseases still need a treatment.

Meanwhile, a company requires at least a decade, billions of euros and a willingness to take high risks to develop a new medicine – all while navigating a complex system of manufacturers, regulators, insurers and distributers. And amidst societal debate and shifting political choices.

But Bertens is optimistic: “We’ve come a long way! Up until now, four years was the shortest time it took to develop a vaccine, and with COVID-19 I hope that we can work even faster. As for access, we have to give this vaccine to everyone anyway – otherwise [the virus] won’t go away.”

Bertens is observing how the whole life sciences sector is coming together to talk and rethink all processes. “In the Netherlands, we have broad scientific knowledge on vaccines and many companies are focusing on finding a cure, while others seek to streamline testing, production and distribution.” He believes all these coronavirus-inspired innovations can also be applied to the industry at large.

Moving forward

Marc ter Haar, of event co-hosts EY, moderated the discussion, using questions coming in from Zoom chat. He echoes Bertens’ optimism: “After all, the United Nations was also founded after a major disaster.”

“Yes, I hope the industry will use its use power and influence – and all its billions – and really make the change for a global approach,” says Vink. “But I am not very positive about the politicians. People are driven by fear: they grab all the toilet paper and have no clue why. And politicians are playing into this. They lack the vision.”

“I’m less sceptical,” says Bertens. “Some politicians are really stepping up. You are seeing it with gene therapy – how they are working to speed up regulations for the testing of these medicines.

Follow the money

Vink advocates taking insurance companies out of any future paradigm: “Let’s take them down – today. They have too much power and do not mesh with a new global system.” Bertens sees insurers as the ultimate payer: “It’s their responsibility to get value for money. But they must also look at the future and their role in it.”

“They do have lots of money,” concedes Vink. “But we’ve made a direct connection between the pharma industry and the patient. It’s time to cut out the middlemen that just make it more expensive and complex in terms of logistics.”

The way forward?

Vink believes there’s other ways to find money: from universal healthcare that charges a set percentage of one’s salary, to looping big data back to pharma companies so they can use these insights into developing ever better medications. “These could all be ways forward.”

The group could have spent a lot more time brainstorming new ways for the different involved parties to move forward – but then the event was over. While the pre-coronavirus Life Science Cafés were notable for their networking opportunities – lubricated by the serving of drinks and greasy snacks – this session ended abruptly. But undoubtedly, it sparked many more online discussions to come: ones that happily combine dreams with pragmaticism.

Want to join the discussion or share your ideas? Contact Jeroen Maas

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