Intersecting crises: Climate change and access to medicines

Intersecting crises: Climate change and access to medicines

Events > News & Stories > Intersecting crises: Climate change and access to medicines
Climate change has been described as the biggest threat to global health in the 21st century. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has responded to some of the world’s most dire medical and humanitarian crises for more than 50 years. Many of the places where we work are in the most climate-vulnerable settings in the world. Our teams provide care for people experiencing the health impacts of the climate emergency first-hand. It is very clear this crisis hits people in the most vulnerable situations the hardest.

The climate emergency, together with lack of access to medicine, aggravates existing vulnerabilities and humanitarian situations. For example, in Niger, changing rain patterns are impacting food production and infectious diseases such as malaria. This comes on top of recurring epidemics and food insecurity linked to demographic pressure and land use, as well as violence and displacement. The deadly combination of malaria and malnutrition takes a heavy toll on children under five.

As MSF continues to work with communities facing humanitarian crises, we reflect on the intersection between climate change and access to medicines through two lenses: vaccine equity and intellectual property.

The climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have both shown the world what it means to face a direct existential threat. We have seen the measures we need to take – for COVID-19, equitable access to vaccines for all – and the resources we need to mobilise to face such a crisis.

What this means is that countries with higher vaccination rates, like the UK, have been able emerge from the pandemic earlier, and open up their economies once more, while many countries around the world are still in the midst of the crisis. Their vulnerable populations and healthcare workers remain at risk, while rich countries have chosen to hoard vaccines and prioritise their own populations while others have been forced to depend on promises of donations.

The second lens through which we look at the intersection between climate change and lack of access to medicines is intellectual property. Specifically, its impact on access to medical technology. The same laws that feed the access to medicines crisis – enforcing drug and other medical technology patents through the World Trade Organization – apply to innovative green technologies.

These technologies are concentrated in rich countries yet are urgently needed by all countries to adapt their economies and reduce carbon emissions. Green technologies include renewable energy sources; transition technologies to limit the environmental impact of existing sources of emissions; hydrogen cell devices; medicines for new illnesses that arise due to climate; and new crops needed for changing weather patterns.

It is clear that, as with access to medicines, our critical need to share innovative green technologies to address the climate crisis requires us to explore fully the impact of intellectual property law on our research and development system and how it impacts on access to these vital technologies.

Much remains to be explored in the interaction of the climate crisis and access to medicines, what we can learn from the responses to both crises, and how the many injustices stem from common causes rooted in the way global systems and power structures are built.

Humanitarian organisations respond to crises regardless of the cause. But their efforts in responding will not make up for the failures to act on the causes of some of these crises by our political leaders. Concrete political action to implement solutions to limit global warming and remove barriers of accessing medicine is needed to prevent disastrous humanitarian consequences and hopefully end injustice in access to medicine and green technologies so that people can live in health and well-being.