Activists ask pharma corporations: “Is the Middle East and North Africa a priority?”

A CAB meeting was held in Morocco, providing an opportunity to discuss access to treatment in a region facing an increase in new HIV infections.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Community Advisory Board (CAB) was held in Marrakech, Morocco, 7-9 January 2020. The event was organized and hosted by ITPC MENA.

CABs were established in the 1990s in response to US activists’ demands for community representation to be included in drug research, and many country, regional and disease-specific CABs have been formed since.

ITPC Global and ITPC MENA were among the 10 civil society organizations, plus hospital and patient representatives, to meet directly with the pharmaceutical companies: Abbott Laboratories, Gilead Sciences and Mylan, and additionally also present questions to the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP).

MENA must not be left behind

The meeting at the start of 2020 was timely. It followed the devastating statistics, published by UNAIDS in 2019, that MENA was one of three regions bucking the global trend and facing an increase in new HIV infections.

MENA has one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics, combined with one of the lowest treatment coverage rates. Only 54% of people living with HIV, who know their status, are accessing treatment.

Activists in the region have been advocating for affordable, optimal treatment for years. Their day-to-day work meant that they were aware of the growing challenges, long before UNAIDS published the data, and have been warning that the region must not be left behind.

Is the MENA region a priority for pharma?

“With treatment coverage so low compared to other countries we wanted to know the companies’ plans for testing, including self-testing, and increasing treatment,” says Marwa El Harrar, ITPC-MENA’s Advocacy Officer.

“The region faces unique challenges. For example, criminalization of key populations is a significant barrier to testing, and the region has a high number of refugees due to the global humanitarian crises. Access strategies that only consider the income-level of countries in the region further compounds the low treatment rates.”

“All three companies assured us that MENA is a priority,” says Aissam Hajji, also Advocacy Officer. “The CAB gave us the opportunity to detail the community perspective and strategies that could be more effective in this context. Pharma representatives need to now take this back to their boards, so the insight from the only people who truly understand, i.e. the communities, can be factored into access strategies.”

Critical timing

The treatment activists present also used the opportunity to address pharma directly to share their criticism of specific strategies, in some cases which appeared to deliberately reduce competition. Other questions directed at the company representatives attempted to drill down into their future plans within the MENA market; request concrete prices for specific drugs; as well as elicit information on new research and development.

“The companies present all expressed an intention to support increased testing and treatment in the region,” says  El Harrar. “The MENA region has been let down previously, having to fight harder to negotiate what other countries have been offered more easily. We of course hope that the sentiments shared will be replicated with action, but we will keep the pressure on and the dialogue open.”