FT - BUSINESS LIFE
The charity that matches surplus medicines with acute need
20 March 2015,
International Health Partners cuts waste from aid, writes Andrew Ward
Pharmaceuticals executives might not seem the most likely recipients of hospitality from HRH the Prince of Wales.
The heir to the British throne is well known for his advocacy of homeopathy. Yet, here they are, senior representatives from Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and many of the world's other big drug makers, sipping champagne in Prince Charles's Clarence House residence in London.
They are here to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a charity, backed by the prince that distributes donated medicines to disaster zones. International Health Partners is not the first organisation to play this role. But its aim is to eliminate inefficiencies that have often undermined relief efforts in the past.
By acting as a brokerage that matches companies' surplus medicines with humanitarian needs, IHP is helping to bring corporate-style supply chain management to international aid.
"In an emergency situation, you don't want 100 different companies all asking the same questions," says Anthony Dunnett, who founded IHP after a career in banking and government. "You want people to be able to see exactly what is needed right away."
The problem IHP is trying to overcome was glaringly visible after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. A multitude of companies and charities rushed to donate 4,000 tonnes of medicines to the region's devastated coastal communities. A year later, a report funded by the World Health Organisation found that half would need to be destroyed because they were out-of-date, inappropriate or simply not needed.
IHP has since tried to avoid this kind of wastage by developing software that allows drug companies to see which products are needed at any given time, based on the requests of aid agencies. The companies, in turn, can use the system to advertise medicines they have available for donation.
"This is not about dumping un-wanted drugs," insists Mr Dunnett." It's about matching need with supply and avoiding duplication. It's a way for companies to work collaboratively on big humanitarian challenges."
While it sounds a simple concept, there are often tricky regulatory obstacles. Companies need assurances that their products will be used in the right way by the right patients in the right place. Donated drugs might leak into a local black market or even be smuggled back to the developed world where they can be sold at a high price.
Mr Dunnett says IHP has avoided this with strict monitoring and by picking its partners carefully. Out of 30m treatments distributed over the past decade, he says only 12 boxes have been lost.
IHP typically receives £15m-£20m worth of medicines each year. These have been directed to more than 100 countries since the charity's inception; war-torn Syria and the storm-hit Philippines have been among its recent priorities.
The charity's reach is set to be increased by a new collaboration called Eurmed involving similar organisations in Germany and Italy. The aim is to build Europe's medical aid capacity into a better match for bigger US relief organisations.
Not everyone in the global health community is a fan of IHP's model. Critics claim that drug donations allow big pharma to feel good about itself while doing nothing to improve long-term access to affordable medicines in the developing world.
Mr Dunnett acknowledges there will always be those who are suspicious of private sector involvement in humanitarian efforts. But he argues that IHP provides a pragmatic way for business to make a positive social contribution. The model could be applied beyond pharmaceuticals, he says, citing food and other consumables as areas where surplus goods could be put to good use.
The Financial Times Limited