Lancet Editorial: Right-to-health responsibilities of pharmaceutical companies

The Lancet
Jun 13, 2009  Volume 373  Number 9680  Pages 1997 – 2082

Right-to-health responsibilities of pharmaceutical companies
Original Text
The Lancet

Almost 2 billion people worldwide lack access to essential medicines. The human rights responsibility to improve access lies mainly with the state. However, non-state actors, such as the pharmaceutical industry, share that responsibility too. On June 3, a UN independent human rights report on the practices and policies of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in relation to their right-to-health responsibilities and access to medicines was presented to the UN Human Rights Council. It is the first time that such a mission on a pharmaceutical company has ever been done. GSK should be commended for subjecting themselves to the process.

In 2008, Paul Hunt, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to highest attainable standard of health (2002—08), prepared human rights guidelines for the pharmaceutical industry that addressed transparency, management, monitoring and accountability, pricing, and ethical marketing. Recommendations from Hunt’s recent GSK report in these areas will apply to other companies and include: greater transparency to ensure access to reliable information about medicines; greater accountability in relation to right-to-health standards, such as wider access to medicines especially for marginalised populations; and finally, as patent holders of life-saving medicines, to make the medicine as accessible as possible, as soon as possible, to all those in need within a viable business model. More specifically, companies should favour using commercial voluntary licences.

GSK was uncomfortable with the recommendations. It insisted that the right to health is not well-defined for non-state actors, and hence they cannot be held accountable to this international human right. On the contrary, both UN reports set out with reasonable precision how the right to health, in the international code of human rights, applies to the pharmaceutical industry, and both move from broad statements of principle to much more specific, operational requirements.

Pharmaceutical companies help deliver the right to health. They save lives. But with this role comes responsibilities—and companies must be better held to public account in relation to those responsibilities. The 2008 guidelines and the GSK report move us closer to that goal.

For GSK response see:

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