This article was originally published by Re:solve Global Health on 14 July 2022.
The task of taking quality care to those living with cancer grows more difficult with the exploding number of new cases. A new initiative pools together expertise to widen access to timely and effective treatment.
The global cancer population is significant and expanding. From over 19 million a year in 2020, the number of new cases is expected to reach 30 million by 2040, including over 16 million premature deaths due to cancer, with massive human and economic costs.
In 2020, more than 3.5 million new cancer cases were diagnosed in low- and lower middle-income countries (LLMICs) and an estimated 2.3 million deaths were caused by cancer. People living with cancer were disproportionately impacted by the covid-19 pandemic, as their access to screening, diagnosis, treatment, and care was severely disrupted.
Most LLMICs do not have sufficient resources to respond to the needs of people living with cancer. They have a limited availability of essential medicines, diagnostics, and human and material resources required for quality cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and care services.
According to Dr Anil D’Cruz, president of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and director of oncology at Apollo Hospitals in India, “Simply making medicines available does not guarantee that people living with cancer will receive the medicines they need at the right time.”
Working towards a common goal
It is in response to this urgent threat that the Access to Oncology Medicines (ATOM) Coalition brings together close to 30 partners, including the biopharmaceutical industry, with a common goal to improve access to medicines as well as quality diagnostic and care pathways for people living with cancer.
The ATOM Coalition can help the world achieve the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3.4, which aims to reduce by one-third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
Launched in May 2022 by UICC and a broad array of partners, the Coalition aims to improve timely access to essential cancer medicines in LLMICs, as well as increase the capacity for high-quality diagnosis and treatment.
Priority will be given to medicines currently on, or likely to be included in the World Health Organization (WHO) Essential Medicines List (EML) for the treatment of cancers with the heaviest mortality burden in LLMICs, including lung, colorectal, breast, cervical, prostate, and childhood cancers.
Forging a unique collaborative model
The Coalition brings together numerous partners with expertise in implementing cancer-focused access programmes. As of June 2022, the partnership consists of 19 global health-focused civil society organisations, medical societies, and global oncology centres, and nine biopharmaceutical and generic manufacturers and associations, along with informal expressions of support from various organisations.
The ATOM Coalition has always exemplified a collaborative partnership model, integrating civil society and private sector perspectives from the beginning through a series of co-creation workshops and meetings to find ways for all stakeholders to work together for improved cancer care in LLMICs.
It is also working to generate synergies across a wide range of existing global and country-level initiatives that are implementing access to cancer care projects in LLMICs. By building on the networks, health expertise, and experience of all partners, the intention is to create links between different health initiatives to complement, enhance and amplify impact across projects.
To achieve the Coalition’s ambitions, partners will collectively increase access to select generic and patented cancer medicines in 46 LLMIC countries, which were selected based on existing health system readiness. In parallel, the ATOM partners will implement intense, coordinated capacity building in five to 10 LLMICs within this group for the first phase of operations.
The initial selection of countries for capacity building will be based on a range of criteria—including the presence of ATOM partners, health system readiness, diagnostic capability, the status of the national EMLs, and the existence of access programmes in the country.
We are encouraged by the new way of working illustrated by the ATOM Coalition. As noted by Thomas Cueni, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), “Building on ‘same old’ ways of working will not achieve this goal [of improving health outcomes for people living with cancer in LLMICs]. We need to push ourselves to share ideas and expertise, inspire new thinking, and co-create new types of solutions for LLMICs.”
This first-of-its-kind model will spur collaborations and provide solutions to communities and, if the model proves successful, we could devise many more collaborative approaches to address other priority global health issues.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Re:solve Global Health.
Vanessa Peberdy is deputy director for Global Health at IFPMA. She joined in 2015 and covers a wide range of global health affairs relating to the access to medicines agenda, including non-communicable diseases, universal health coverage and multilateral engagement.
Melissa Rendler-Garcia is senior advisor to UICC and project lead on ATOM. She has worked with the CEO and the team for over 15 years designing and implementing global cancer control initiatives including the World Cancer Leaders’ Summit and the City Cancer Challenge.