What sort of weekend involves a sleepy Swiss town, fondue, traditional Swiss singers, a 40 metre long banner and over 200 global health activists representing 22 countries camping out in Cold War nuclear bunkers?
The 2014 Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) Europe conference, which took place from the 25- 27th April in one of Big Pharma’s most prominent global hotspots, Basel. Inspirational speakers, thought leaders and delegates alike gathered to celebrate the systemic successes the UAEM has seen since its conception in 2001 as UAEM chapters around the world continue to drive forwards the campaign to increase access to medicines in the developing world.
UAEM has three main missions:
- to promote medical innovations in low and middle-income countries by changing norms and practices around academic patenting and licensing.
- To ensure that University medical research meets the needs of people worldwide.
- To empower students to respond to the access and innovation crisis.
As Student Stop AIDS campaigners with the same shared motivation to see governments, global institutions and transnational corporations put the needs of people before profit and commercial success, Saoirse, Georgia, Tabby and I were extremely lucky to be able to share in all the UAEM conference action!
After welcome tours and talks, the conference kicked off with a session that set out the current situation in the fight for global access to medicines. Around a third of the world’s population does not have regular access to essential medicines, and in the poorest parts of Africa and Asia this figure rises to over 50%. Yet, because the research and development of new drugs by pharmaceutical companies is driven by the bottom line, and because pursuit of maximum licensing revenues drives Universities to sell their own patented innovations to pharmaceutical companies (who can then restrict access to the generic version of the drug), there is a research culture that sets priorities based on potential income rather than medical need.
This culminates in a reduced focus on neglected diseases, and other poverty related health issues, such as HIV, TB, Hepatitis C and river blindness. While this gloomy situation continues to exist in biomedical research, we also learned about the amazing ways in which UAEM are reacting. For one, they are responding to the fact that Universities have a past history of very successful research (between 1/3 and ¼ of new medicines originate in University laboratories and ¼ of HIV treatments wouldn’t exist without University research) by calling for Universities to construct equitable licensing arrangements that ensure underprivileged populations have low or no-cost access to adequate quantities of these medical innovations. In addition, they advocate for drugs for neglected disease initiatives and open source drug discovery.
An amazing Swiss Muesli breakfast on Saturday set a very high standard that continued throughout the day. Firstly reports were made on the progress of each chapter. It was great to hear of all the wonderful work and the diverse and innovative ways each chapter was contributing to the overall movement.
Following that, Rachel Kiddell-Munroe, a UAEM senior advisor, International board member of Medicins Sans Frontieres and lawyer and an activist specialising in global health, governance and bioethics shared her experiences working in the field during the Rwandan genocide, and why she sees so much value in the work young health activists, like UAEM and Student Stop AIDS do.
Next Linda Mafu, Head of the Civil Society and Political Advocacy Department at the Global Fund, gave a hugely entertaining and powerful speech about the important role civil society have to play in the fight for global access to medicine. She shared her experiences campaigning for the South African government to better engage with the issues surrounding HIV and AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s.
Building on the morning’s success, we then had the opportunity to attend interesting workshops facilitated by experts in the global health field. I attended ‘An insiders guide to WHO advocacy: civil societies role in the fight for access to medicines’. Amongst many things we discussed the limits imposed on the spread of medicines globally by the bodies that purport to shape the research health agenda in an equitable way, but in actual fact ratify strategies that prioritise intellectual property considerations over health – which was interesting/ aggravating to learn!
The learning aspect of the day ended with a big panel discussion on “Making Medicines for People – Not for Profit! How Can Universities be Game Changers in Our Broken Medical Research System?” We explored the various ways the R&D system are failing poor countries, as well as the ways institutes such as the Drug Research for Neglected Diseases institute is creating space for a more accountable and fair framework for research and development.
To round off the day in true Swiss style we gathered in a big town hall to share a huge vat of cheese fondue and to listen to traditional Swiss singing. Wonderful!
The final day of the conference ended in a whirlwind of presentations and workshops on how to best prepare for upcoming campaigns. From the 1-7th November 2015 UEAM are coordinating an ‘Access2Medicines’ week during which charters all over the world will be holding events and activities centred around promoting access to medicine in developing countries. Having been at the conference and seen the amazing work and passion of UEAMers, I see this week as a perfect opportunity for us StopAIDers to get behind our local UEAM branches, or to run events in solidarity with UEAM in our own universities to raise awareness of the many issues around access to medicine. My take away points from the conference were that if a group of motivated people collectively put their skills and passion into fighting for a cause, anything is possible, and it made me proud to be part of the movement for global health; I hope you are too!