Improving Access to NCD Medicines and Products Will Help Build Future Pandemic Resilience

A Malaysian woman in a head scarf checks her smartphone while shopping in a pharmacy.

The international development community has long viewed noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) as a separate concern from infectious diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has bridged the gaps between the two types of conditions, challenging governments, health service providers, and the public health community to consider how infectious and chronic diseases intersect, and how to respond.

At a time when the world is putting billions of dollars into developing vaccines and medications as the ultimate solutions to SARS-CoV-2, we must recognize that the non-availability of existing treatments for NCDs has increased the vulnerability of billions of people worldwide to this virus. We have all seen the evidence that people living with an NCD are more likely to become seriously ill, be hospitalized, require ICU admission, and sadly, die from COVID-19. The pandemic is further worsening an already dire situation, with twenty percent of WHO-surveyed countries reporting that COVID-19 has negatively impacted the availability of essential NCD medicines.

We believe that if NCD medicines and products were widely available in all countries, there would be fewer deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic related to NCDs. Addressing this well-recognized and yet unmet need is one of many practical ways for the international community and national policymakers to collaborate to strengthen resilience to future pandemics.

Access to essential medicines for chronic disease in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) was already woefully inadequate prior to COVID-19 in both the private and public sectors.  This situation led a group of government agencies, private sector entities, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropic foundations, and academic institutions to launch the Coalition for Access to NCD Medicines and Products in 2017, with the aim of increasing access to and availability of medicines and products for people living with NCDs through advocacy, supply chain strengthening, finance and costing, and capacity building.     

However, COVID-19 has brought into focus the renewed importance of addressing these problems. During infectious disease outbreaks, access to essential medicines decreases as supply chains are disrupted and health systems become overburdened. Clinical care providers are diverted to the urgent needs of the pandemic, private and public sector pharmacies suffer from staff non-availability and lockdown restrictions; and patient access to these services drops radically due to absent transport networks, restrictions on movement, and loss of income for many households hit by unemployment. There is no global procurer for NCD medicines, like the role Gavi plays for vaccines or UNFPA and UNICEF play for reproductive health supplies. There is no well-oiled supply chain machinery working to reduce “unmet need” or achieve elimination targets as there is for many neglected tropical diseases. There is no safety net for NCDs.

As the pandemic is expected to continue into 2021, countries are attempting to adapt their NCD care in response. But they need support to identify and put in place feasible measures to mitigate the impact on people living with NCDs, and to avoid further damage to health systems that will worsen health and economic impacts. Implementation science can swiftly identify and test measures that may help, including: donor provision of NCD medication as emergency relief; capacity building at the primary health care level to manage NCDs, including referral pathways; rapid remote surveillance to identify the groups at greatest risk; protocols for safe, socially distanced distribution of medicines and supplies; and the availability of remote or socially distanced advice and support. Unfortunately, this approach is not yet a feature of the COVID-19 emergency response for many LMICs. We must work to change that.

Including NCDs in the global health security agenda

In the aftermath of COVID-19, governments and multi-lateral agencies will seek ways to prevent future infectious disease outbreaks. NCD control should be considered within the reinvigorated global health security (GHS) and pandemic preparedness agendas that will emerge, and those strategies must link more closely to population resilience.

GHS in its current form covers some key elements of better access to NCD medicines like surveillance, risk communications, and emergency response operations planning. And yet, global health security roadmaps and initiatives make no mention of NCDs. Addressing the NCD medicine and product gap can help create more resilient communities by reducing the number of people that are highly vulnerable to infectious diseases like COVID-19 and ensuring that they are protected from future pandemics.

‘Future-proofing’ populations against impacts during a pandemic requires plans and protocols to protect NCD medication supply and distribution. Stronger NCD surveillance capability within national disease recording systems, such as registries for people with diabetes or cardiovascular disease, will help identify people in need of essential medication, advice and support when their usual care is unreachable. Measures to improve the availability and affordability of NCD medication must get higher billing within national health strategies and the development aid provided to LMICs. Concerted efforts to put access plans for NCD medicines into action, including the Coalition’s current work to develop and test a demand forecast model for NCD medicines and products, will protect populations against the impacts of pandemic infectious disease. The Coalition is committed to working together through our activities and partnerships at the global, regional, and national levels, to build back better and improve the lives of people living with NCDs.  

To learn more about the Coalition, to join us in this important work, or to tell us about the work that you are doing to improve global access to NCD medicines and products, click here. We also invite you to join us for a webinar on Wednesday, August 12th - “Conversations with Global Leaders: How improving access to NCD treatment and care is a critical element of building back better.” 

This piece was originally published on the blog of the Coalition for Access to NCD Medicines and Products.

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