After nearly two years, COVID-19 continues to impact countries around the world. The pandemic has also highlighted the vital role of healthcare companies in developing and ensuring the equitable distribution of life-saving medicines.
Among those involved in the effort to stop the spread and negative effects of coronavirus is global pharmaceutical firm Merck, Sharp, and Dohme (MSD), which has received recognition for its development of the drug molnupiravir, an oral antiviral COVID treatment.
Yet this is not a new endeavor for MSD. The company has a long legacy of helping the world fight pandemics. It is also dedicated to creating innovative healthcare solutions for patients worldwide and supporting access to those solutions.
For MSD Taiwan’s Managing Director Jae Yeon Choi, the reason for this is simple. “We firmly believe in the importance of investing in health, and a country’s greatest wealth is the health of its people,” she says. “At MSD, we make it our mission to help people live longer, healthier, and more productive lives.”
To that end, MSD has contributed significantly to healthcare innovation in Taiwan, including investing US$90 million in over 100 clinical studies conducted on the island. One-third of that investment was made in 2020 alone.
Yet some significant hurdles to bringing MSD’s innovations to patients in Taiwan remain. Choi says that despite Taiwan’s many advantages – its well-established National Health Insurance (NHI) system, abundance of talented healthcare professionals, and excellent environment for conducting clinical trials – the challenge lies in public funding for new treatments that have become part of the standard of care in other countries.
How to fund medical innovation is an issue common to countries using a single-payer model, Choi says. She notes that horizon scanning, which is currently being adopted by Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Administration, is a good solution to this problem. It involves identifying potential epidemiological threats and unmet patient needs, then allocating a budget sufficient to address these issues.
“By following the success of other countries using Health Technology Assessments that have implemented horizon scanning, we will be able to put the best tools in the hands of our medical professionals and realize the benefit of innovative medicine for our patients,” says Choi.
Fulfilling unmet patient needs may seem like a bold goal, but it is one that Taiwan must begin working toward. “The best way to describe the value of biopharmaceutical innovation is that, for every single person and their family we help, we are saving and changing lives,” Choi says. “On a macro-level, recognizing the value of investing in innovation to public health is fundamental to the competitiveness of a country.”
A policy shift of the kind advocated by MSD could greatly benefit patients in a wide range of therapeutic areas, including oncology and cancer care. In 2020, Asia logged over 9.5 million new cancer cases, nearly half of the global total. The annual number of new cases is expected to increase by more than 60% over the next 20 years, reaching 15 million by 2040. This figure represents a huge healthcare challenge, yet with the right policies in place, it is neither inevitable nor insurmountable. Studies show that the use of innovative new drugs has reduced cancer death rates by 25% with 80% of patients who are prescribed innovative cancer treatments returning to work after one year.
In addition, Taiwan would also benefit from making vaccination a bigger part of its public health agenda. Choi observes that the Taiwanese public have shown great support for COVID-19 vaccines. She encourages the government to be more proactive in educating the public regarding the value and benefits afforded by vaccination and instilling vaccine confidence in local communities.
Given today’s healthcare challenges, how can stakeholders begin to make a change? Choi, for her part, underscores the importance and effectiveness of public-private partnerships in working collectively toward common goals.
“We envision a world in which the public and private sectors can move beyond traditional boundaries and zero-sum mindsets, where we can collaborate and find win-win solutions,” Choi says. She cites the recent Health Innovation Forum co-hosted by AIT and top U.S. companies such as MSD, IBM, and Varian as an example of such collaboration. In attendance at that event were many of Taiwan’s top public and private-sector actors, who discussed how to expedite access to digital health solutions in Taiwan.
Multinational pharmaceutical companies can also help the Taiwan government by sharing best practices, Choi says, noting that MSD’s presence in 140 countries has provided it with substantial experience developing international collaborations and partnerships.
“We believe in putting patients first and will continue to find solutions to their unmet needs,” Choi says. “As a company that ‘invents for life,’ we ensure that our innovations are not just discoveries made in laboratories, but that they become part of a solution that saves patient lives.”