New Study Finds That UCLA and Other Top Research Universities Have Done Little To Make New Drugs Accessible

Keerthi Vedantam

Keerthi Vedantam is a bioscience reporter at dot.LA. She cut her teeth covering everything from cloud computing to 5G in San Francisco and Seattle. Before she covered tech, Keerthi reported on tribal lands and congressional policy in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter, Clubhouse (@keerthivedantam) or Signal at 408-470-0776.

New Study Finds That UCLA and Other Top Research Universities Have Done Little To Make New Drugs Accessible

Despite gobbling up taxpayer dollars, UCLA and other top U.S. research universities are not doing enough to make drugs and medical devices financially accessible to people in low-income countries, a new report found.

Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a student-run nonprofit focused on making costly medicines cheaper worldwide, used public data and a survey to rank 60 universities on their dedication to improve health disparities in low-income countries.

UCLA and 16 other top public universities that develop drug treatments got a D-minus rating for centering much of their research around private companies and failing to prioritize global health. The report also found the university failed to fund many projects that would help treat neglected diseases most common in low-income countries.

Avani Reddy, a neuroscience student at UCLA and one a member of UAEM, said the group compiled the report to ensure that her school and other universities were developing drugs at "sustainable prices and not obnoxious prices."

Georgetown and Harvard ranked highest with a B- while other UC system schools, including San Francisco and Davis, also got Ds, while Irvine got a F.

UCLA declined to respond to questions about the study, but said the university did not participate. UAEM ranked universities that did not respond lower than those that did.

"It should be that that research is accessible to people," said Devika Shenoy, a UCLA student and UAEM member studying human biology and society.

The 20-year-old student organization was born out of an effort by Yale University students to make an HIV/AIDS drug developed at the school and distributed by Bristol-Myers Squibb cheaper for low-income countries by allowing for the production of generics.

UCLA received $840 million in federal dollars for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, much of which went towards the medical and life sciences schools.

UAEM wants major federally funded research universities to focus on the issues big pharma companies find less profitable, like when Johns Hopkins surrendered a tuberculosis drug to a United Nations-supported organization to distribute the drug royalty-free. These schools, UAEM argues, should serve a larger public good in part because the public is paying for the research.

"Universities hold influence to leverage their significant contribution in biomedical research to advance global access to essential medicines and health technologies," the UAEM report said, pointing to the fact that one-third of new medicines originate in universities, according to a 2010 report.

UCLA has come under fire for drug access before. In 2016, the school sold a drug it developed to treat prostate cancer to Royalty Pharma. When a generic drug company in India tried to reproduce it, the school filed a patent claim, sparking protests. Ultimately, UCLA prevailed. But the incident highlights the pressure public-funded research universities are under to make their discoveries available and the competing demand from a market that relies on them.

Low and middle-income countries "may not have access to those resources to invest in R&D the way that schools like UCLA can in order to ensure that global public health needs are really being prioritized," Shenoy said.

COVID has brought these issues to the forefront. Oxford University originally developed its COVID-19 vaccine with the promise it would be open source so it could be distributed in low-income countries at a low cost or for free. Instead, it became the AstraZenca vaccine after the Gates Foundation brokered a deal between the two parties.

Meanwhile, only 0.1% of COVID-19 vaccines have made it to low-income countries. In 2020, organizations like Amnesty International warned that many in low-income countries would not have access to patented vaccines owned by wealthier countries. Vaccines specifically made with cheaper and accessible materials have just begun clinical trials, and pharma giant Pfizer will start testing a freeze-dried vaccine that can withstand higher temperatures this month.

Universities play a sizable role in the pharmaceutical pipeline, especially in preclinical development, according to Bill Bolding, a senior analyst at Provident Healthcare Partners. Venture firms and pharma companies rarely start investing in bioscience companies until there is proof of concept, much of which is created in university labs.

"Usually what you're seeing in the preclinical level is you're seeing like some kind of chemical reaction or proof of some kind of technology, in vitro," Bolding said.

Subscribe to our newsletter to catch every headline.


March Capital Raises $650 Million Fund to Invest in AI Startups

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

March Capital Raises $650 Million Fund to Invest in AI Startups
March Capital founder Jamie Montgomery. Illustration by Dilara Mundy.

Santa Monica-based venture outfit March Capital announced Feb. 3 that it raised its largest fund to date, a $650 million investment vehicle that will be used to back up to 15 startups focused on delivering new uses of artificial intelligence.

Read moreShow less

The Three Best Ways to Work With Your Startup Board

Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

The Three Best Ways to Work With Your Startup Board

When launching and running a startup, your board of directors is one of your most valuable assets. If you already understand why you need a board and how to structure your board, it may be tempting to think you can cross that item off the list. But building a board is just the beginning. Now you’ve got to get down to business—together.

Read moreShow less

This Week in ‘Raises’: Saviynt Lands $205M, Pagos Secures $34M

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

This Week in ‘Raises’: Saviynt Lands $205M, Pagos Secures $34M
This Week in ‘Raises’:

While it was a slow week of funding in Los Angeles, security vendor Saviynt managed to score $205 million that will be used to meet the company’s growing demand for its converged identity platform and accelerate innovation.

Read moreShow less