Improving access to medicine could save 10 million lives a year globally, a U.N. health envoy said on Thursday, recommending that drugmakers support research for neglected diseases and cut prices in poor countries.
Paul Hunt, an independent U.N. expert on the right to health, estimated that 2 billion people worldwide cannot get the essential drugs they need.
In about 50 recommendations released by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Hunt urged drugmakers to charge less for medicines in poorer markets and allow developing states flexibility in accessing cheaper generics.
"It is time to identify what pharmaceutical companies should do to help realize the human right to medicine. How can we expect pharmaceutical companies to respect human rights if we fail to explain what they're expected to do?" he said.
"The price of medicine in a low-income country should be less than the price of the same or equivalent medicine in a middle-income country, which should be less than the price of the same or equivalent medicine in a high-income country."
Just 15 percent of the global population consumes more than 90 percent of the world's pharmaceuticals, he added.
On patents, one of the most contentious issues in public health, Hunt said it was important pharmaceutical companies respect World Trade Organization (WTO) rules and ease off lobbying for stricter patent protection in poorer states.
"The company should not extend patent duration, or file patents for new indications for existing medicines, in low-income and middle-income countries," his guidelines said.
Hunt, a law professor from New Zealand, said drugmakers should make public their strategies on improving global access to medicines, and show a commitment to help create vaccines and medicines for tropical, parasitic and other overlooked ailments.
He did not outline any measures that would require companies to follow the recommendations but said he would seek feedback from the pharmaceutical industry and others on his guidelines, to be finalized in 2008.