Drug companies suffer from lack of sustainability, says oekom

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  • Drug companies suffer from lack of sustainability, says oekom

GLOBAL - Pharmaceutical companies are laggards when it comes to sustainability, according to the latest study by sustainability ratings agency oekom research.

The pharma industry lives on innovation and progress, and its scientists are constantly looking for new ingredients that ensure their companies' growth and profits.

But Marlen Rürup, analyst for the sector at oekom research, said: "The sector shows less innovation regarding the key issues of sustainability, such as improving global medical care, marketing and distribution practices, transparency of research and responsibility for the environment. The companies react rather than act."

In oekom's analysis of 76 market-listed and bond-issuing pharma and biotechnology companies according to environmental and social criteria, the average mark achieved by all companies was D+, on a scale of A+ (the best mark) to D-.

The top-ranked company was UK pharma company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) with a B-, ahead of Danish biotech company Novozymes and French firm Sanofi with the same mark. Sanofi was the top-ranking company two years ago.

According to oekom, leading pharma companies such as GSK and Novartis have increased their research of tropical diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, and many try to make drugs available in developing countries through discounts, development aid for local health infrastructures and cooperation with manufacturers of generic drugs.

However, already licensed drugs often are only available to a limited extent, and companies clinging onto their patent law for too long stalls the advent of cheaper drugs.

Rürup added: "Unfortunately, the extent of the research undertaken of diseases common in developing countries tends to be minor in relation to the overall product portfolio."

Marketing and distribution methods of the sector, such as advertising the success of drugs on so far untested fields of application; the downplaying of risks and side effects; royalties-receiving doctors; and opaque lobbying activities remain controversial.

Restrictions imposed by the companies themselves remain regional, and none of the analysed companies applies global marketing standards on a voluntary basis.

The tendency to test drugs in developing countries contains the risk that subject groups - often children, the illiterate and people in dire financial circumstances - have not been appropriately informed.

The companies claim to deploy high global ethical standards, but do not comment on their specific activities.  

Many companies aim to reduce their use of water and have set themselves water targets or apply water strategies such as AstraZeneca and GSK. However, drug residue in water remains a neglected issue.

oekom called on the pharma industry to meet the challenges presented to them by sustainability, through, for example, a higher and more transparent engagement to improve access to medicine, stronger self-imposed restrictions on marketing and distribution practices and the minimisation of risks linked to the testing of drugs in developing countries.

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