MSF launched the Access Campaign in 1999 against the backdrop of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was raging in developing countries. While lifesaving HIV drug ‘cocktails’ transformed this deadly disease into a chronic and manageable condition in wealthy countries, they were priced out of reach for everyone else.
At the same time, MSF medical staff lacked adequate treatments for neglected diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and African sleeping sickness, because pharmaceutical corporations did not consider it profitable enough to develop drugs for people who could not afford to pay high prices.
“We demand change, not charity”
Deciding we could not sit by idly and watch this injustice take the lives of so many people in front of us, we started the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines – now known as the Access Campaign – to overcome the many barriers that prevent people from getting the treatment they need to stay alive and healthy.
The Access Campaign focuses in particular on bringing down prices and ensuring medicines are available in countries that need them, and stimulating research into improved treatment options.
This market failure is our next challenge. The challenge however… is for governments… the pharmaceutical industry and other NGOs to confront this injustice. What we as a civil society movement demand is change, not charity.Dr James Orbinski, MSF President, delivering Nobel Peace Prize lecture, 1999
In 2019, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of founding our Access Campaign, which works to secure access to affordable medicines, diagnostics and vaccines, for people in our care and beyond.
Marking this milestone provides an opportunity to reflect on what has been learned and accomplished – and what needs to be done going forward – in medical innovation and access for all people in need.
Steps taken in access to medicines
Over the last two decades, MSF and civil-society outrage and demands to put patient lives before patents and corporate profits have resulted in advancements in the affordability and availability of key lifesaving drugs and vaccines.
For HIV medicines, the price ultimately came down by more than 99 percent, from over US$10,000 to treat one person for one year in 2000, to less than $100 per year today, by breaking down corporate monopolies to allow robust competition and the production of affordable generic drugs, primarily from India.
In the early 2000s, we pushed for a switch to more effective treatment for malaria through the Access Campaign’s ‘ACT Now’ campaign, urging countries to switch to artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT), which most countries in Africa did by 2008.
In 2003, we co-founded the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), an innovative non-for-profit drug development model to develop treatments for neglected patients, which has delivered eight treatments for malaria, paediatric HIV, leishmaniasis, Chagas disease, and sleeping sickness, including the recently launched all-oral sleeping sickness treatment fexinidazole.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the Access Campaign advocated on nutrition and vaccines and achieved success in improving the quality of food aid provided to children facing malnutrition through the ‘Starved for Attention’ campaign. The team also achieved critical affordable access for humanitarian organisations to the pneumonia vaccine for children in emergency contexts through the ‘A Fair Shot’ campaign.
With the introduction of new medicines to cure hepatitis C starting in 2013, the world was confronted with the $1,000 pill – a situation which, alongside the exorbitant and escalating prices of cancer drugs and insulin, put front and centre the global crisis of high medicine prices.
By supporting legal challenges to the monopoly held by corporations like Gilead Sciences in multiple countries, we, along with other civil society organisations, have contributed to price reductions of key hepatitis C medicines to roughly $1 per pill in selected countries. But tens of millions of people are still waiting for the cure.
Challenges still remain
The medical innovation and access crisis is now becoming increasingly global, with people in developing and developed countries alike experiencing some of the same access challenges we have seen for decades in our work in over 70 countries.
“It’s time to acknowledge that the way drugs are developed and sold today is not delivering the treatments people around the world need at prices they can afford”, says Dr Els Torreele, Executive Director of the Access Campaign. “We need to see governments and the research community standing up and proposing bold solutions to a problem that is truly global—simply put, the status quo is deadly.”