Global Health Disparity and Pharmaceutical Companies’ Obligation to Assist

Anita Ho


In recent decades, in response to the ongoing global health disparity and the relative inaccessibility of pharmaceutical products for people in the least developed countries (LDCs), various international organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), have been exploring ways to increase access and affordability to essential treatments. As healthcare is often considered chief among all goods, many are claiming that pharmaceutical companies have a moral obligation to assist the afflicted in LDCs. To ease the dire situation in these impoverished regions, many have advocated for tiered or differential pricing, parallel imports, drug donation, and waiver of patent rights by resourceful companies for these regions (Spinello 1992; Resnik 2001; De George 2005a). Tiered or differential pricing is the idea that drug prices should be adjusted to reflect what different patient populations can afford, whereas parallel imports involve importing drugs retailed for lower prices in one country for resale in another.

This chapter critically explores the extent to which pharmaceutical companies have a moral obligation to assist poor patients in LDCs who currently have no or inadequate access to lifesaving medications. Focusing on the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic in LDCs, the first section of this essay will begin with some background information of the disproportionate burden of HIV/AIDS in LDCs. The second section will provide a brief overview of some of the salient arguments for holding multinational antiretroviral treatment (ART) manufacturers as morally responsible for easing the disproportionate global disease burden. The third section explains that these arguments regarding pharmaceutical companies’ duty to assist are going

A. Ho (*)

Centre for Biomedical Ethics, National University of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore

Centre for Applied Ethics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

D. Ho (ed.), Philosophical Issues in Pharmaceutics, Philosophy and Medicine 122, DOI 10.1007/978-94-024-0979-6_3

too far on the one hand by downplaying other non-pharmacological contributors to the slow response, but are also not going far enough on the other hand in upholding reciprocity-based duties. As the international community and researchers battle the reemergence of Ebola in Africa, the fourth section will explore how lessons from the HIV/AIDS situation can help to address what pharmaceutical companies may subsequently owe patients in this region and how the international community should respond to ongoing unequal disease burden.

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