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Policy Solutions Can Help Innovative Cancer Treatments Reach SEA Patients

Breakthrough treatments and increased access to health care are helping people across Southeast Asia live longer than ever before. While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new attention and respect for innovative treatments and medicines, more needs to be done to deploy novel therapeutics to combat longstanding challenges. For example, in 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – including cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory conditions and cardiovascular diseases – the leading cause of death in Southeast Asia.

The population in Southeast Asia is projected to grow by 9 percent by 2030. However, cancer incidence is expected to increase by around 35 percent over the same period. Action is urgently needed to address this trend. Governments, biopharmaceutical companies and health officials must collaborate to reduce barriers, accelerate access and enable further innovation in oncology treatment and care.

While we know more about the underlying causes of many cancers, researchers continue to face substantial scientific challenges in the pursuit of new medicines due to the complexity of the diseases. Biopharmaceutical research companies continue to make strides in developing innovative therapies, as they increase their understanding of how cancer cells originate, grow and spread on the molecular and cellular level. Worldwide, there are more than 3,000 new cancer medicines in development, 80 percent of which have the potential to be first-in-class treatments. Unfortunately, patients in Southeast Asia are unable to access these breakthrough therapies. A study by the WHO found that national drug lists in Southeast Asia includes less than half (on average) of the cancer drugs it deems essential.

Private-public partnerships between ASEAN governments and biopharmaceutical companies are breaking down barriers for patients across the region. For example, in Thailand, Sanofi has partnered with Bangkok hospitals for more than a decade to promote education and pediatric cancer care for rural residents. Also, across Southeast Asian counties, Novartis collaborates with The Max Foundation to provide funding and drug donation support for patients in need, supplying approximately 315 million doses of medicines in the last four years.

Meanwhile, the impact of COVID-19 on cancer care, such as screening, diagnosis and treatment, is a concern across Southeast Asia. Experts fear a ‘mini tsunami’ of cancer cases resulting from treatment delays or new patients who were reluctant to seek care during the pandemic, according to the Roche-sponsored Economist Intelligence Report.

When people can access the cancer services and treatments they need, it can be lifechanging. A 2020 study analyzing life expectancy from 1990 to 2015 found that public health interventions were accountable for 44 percent of improved life expectancy and pharmaceuticals were the second-leading cause of gains of life years at 35 percent. But left unchecked, unmet medical needs could have dire consequences in the region, from premature cancer deaths to lower productivity and crippling health care costs. That’s why it is vital that governments across Southeast Asia take a more active role in expediting biopharmaceutical research, development, regulatory approval and distribution to support patients and save lives.

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