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04/12/2013

University 'global health impact' report card: The Lancet weighs in

Leprosy
Patients rest on their beds at Sitanala Leprosy Hospital in Tangerang, Indonesia, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Indonesia has the third-highest number of leprosy cases in the world after India and Brazil. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

Last Friday, I wrote about the release of a new report card ranking major North American universities according to their emphasis on neglected diseases -- ailments that disproportionately impact the poorest people in the poorest countries.

The results were somewhat surprising. One bright spot was the University of British Columbia -- which got an A- and was ranked No. 1 -- but the overall picture was that top universities across Canada and the U.S. are punching below their weight when it comes to contributing research on neglected diseases.

Today, The Lancet, one of the top medical journals in the world, has weighed in on the results from this new report card, which was sponsored by a student-driven non-profit called Universities Allied for Essential Medicines. And The Lancet was not impressed:

"The Report Card found gross inequities in the resources being devoted to neglected disease research—for example, less than 3% of total funding went to projects investigating neglected diseases and only ten universities had dedicated neglected disease research centres...

Further, the report highlights a disturbing lack of equity in socially responsible licensing and accessibility in the developing world. Only about a third of the universities included have technology transfer and licensing standards that consider social responsibility and only a small percentage of licences provide for global affordability. This is a stark finding compounded by the fact that universities rarely pursue patents in developing countries during disclosure grace periods, which has failed to spur drug manufacturers to capitalise on an open field for affordable generics—an otherwise neglected market for neglected diseases.

The Report Card points out the tremendous inadequacies of current institutional commitments, but also provides a clear set of “stretch” goals to increase access to research that could help save millions of lives. With so many resources in the hands of a small group, it's time for these institutions to extend their reach to where it's needed most."
One major problem with the report card was that most universities -- including U of T -- refused to answer survey questions about how they were licensing and patenting their medical breakthroughs.

And the question remains: will universities care about how they do on this report card? Does the group behind the report card have enough weight to pressure universities to improve?
This New York Times article covering the story has an interesting snippet that suggests the report card could work:
"Five years ago, a similar report card ranking pharmaceutical companies was created by the Netherlands-based Access to Medicine Index. Major firms ignored it at first but by last year they were naming executives to ensure they excelled, and boasting to shareholders when they did."

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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