By Julie Stauffer ([email protected])

Pharmaceutical companies produce hundreds of life-saving drugs every year. Yet each year, millions of people in developing countries die from preventable and treatable illnesses – diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis – because they can’t afford to buy the drugs they need.

In an era when businesses are scrambling to prove their corporate citizenship credentials, big pharma could be playing a key role in bridging that gap. Indeed, one of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals specifically calls on the cooperation of drug companies to ensure that developing countries have access to essential drugs at an affordable price.

But how well do pharmaceutical companies actually measure up when it comes to helping the world’s poorest citizens? Thanks to the Netherlands-based Access to Medicine Index, that information is now just a click away.

Launched in June 2008 by the Access to Medicine Foundation, an independently-funded non-profit organisation, the index assesses 20 of the world’s largest drug companies based on criteria ranging from equitable pricing to research and development into neglected diseases. Its goals: to engage the pharmaceutical industry in improving global access to medicine and to give socially conscious investors an impartial assessment of how well individual companies currently perform.

According to the inaugural index, their efforts vary widely. While GlaxoSmithKline topped the list with 4.5 out of a possible score of 5.0, followed closely by Novo Nordisk, Merck & Co., Novartis, and Sanofi-Aventis, the lowest-ranked company garnered a mere 1.3.

As well as scoring companies, the index highlighted a number of best practices, such as Sanofi-Aventis’s decision not to patent the anti-malarial ASAQ, Merck & Co.’s tiered pricing policy for HIV drugs based on the UN Human Development Index and HIV/AIDS infection rates, and the Wyeth/WHO collaboration on river blindness drugs.

“The Access to Medicine Index finds good practices within individual companies and holds them up as a shining example to others,” says Index founder Wim Leereveld.

The foundation consulted extensively with government, researchers, NGOs, and the pharmaceutical industry to develop assessment protocols. Drawing on a variety of data, it ranked companies on a total of 28 indicators, grouped into 8 main criteria:

  • Access to medicines management
  • Public policy influence and lobbying
  • Research and development into neglected diseases
  • Patents and licensing
  • Drug manufacturing, distribution, and capability advancement
  • Equitable pricing
  • Drug donations
  • Philanthropic activities

Companies had an opportunity to verify the accuracy of the information, and a draft of the report was reviewed by independent experts.

To date, the index has attracted substantial media attention along with kudos from Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, World Bank Executive Director Herman Wijffels, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.

Perhaps most significantly, 12 major global investors, together representing more than $US 1.2 trillion in assets, have formally acknowledged the index as a tool to improve transparency and assess the long-term value of pharmaceutical companies.

The Access to Medicine Foundation plans to issue the rankings annually and expand them to include more companies in 2009.