This week, an enormous achievement quietly flew under the radar of most college newspapers. After years of work, six universities — including Penn, Harvard and Yale — committed to make desperately needed medicines more accessible to developing countries. The implications of this commitment could be increased access to high-demand medications in HIV-ridden countries, as well as increased research for little-understood tropical diseases — transforming millions of lives in the world’s poorest countries.

The statement, with a mouthful of a title too long for my word count, is better known as the “access document.” At face value, it seems that accessibility to adequate treatment is a problem better suited for drug companies and Bill Gates to tackle, but actually, universities can and should have a lot of leverage in this issue. As repositories of the best and brightest minds, and recipients of millions of dollars in federal research funding, universities develop many new medicines that come to market.

Large research universities have a dual goal of using research to benefit society and generating income. These two ideals can come into conflict if the rights to a new technology are sold to the private sector with stipulations that make a certain treatment too expensive or inaccessible due to selective marketing, for poor countries.

It’s to Penn’s great credit that we’ve signed on to the access document, but as the university with our nation’s first school of medicine and one of the best hospitals in the country, we can do more.

For example, it’s wonderful that Penn was represented in the inaugural meeting of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health in September 2008. It would have been even better, however, if President Gutmann had attended the first annual CUGH meeting this year as a further show of support.

Undergraduates in particular can have a huge impact in expanding Penn’s leadership role in supporting worldwide access to medicine. Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) promotes universal access to research results and increased research of neglected diseases, and has had an active chapter on campus since its inception. UAEM represents a rapidly growing network of coalitions between faculty and students at almost 70 campuses worldwide.

But few undergraduates participate at Penn. Most UAEM members are medical students, with a ratio of about 4:1 of graduate to undergraduate students. That’s a shame, because undergrads can bring a lot to the table.

“Undergraduates have a certain freedom of pursuit,” said Penn UAEM co-chairman Ari Friedman, who’s earning a Ph.D in health economics at Wharton and his M.D. from Penn’s School of Medicine. A former Daily Pennsylvanian editor, he characterizes undergrads as “broadminded and energetic.” Furthermore, he added, “the administration cares a lot about undergraduate opinions,” meaning that increased undergraduate involvement would undoubtedly bring more attention to UAEM policy proposals by key decisionmakers at the University.

With initiatives gathering speed at institutions nationwide, the time has never been better for more students to get involved with the movement. This weekend, Yale hosts the UAEM National Conference; last week, the UAEM UC Berkeley chapter, in collaboration with the university’s law school, held a “Biotech Patent Pool Workshop,” facilitating discussion between the pharmaceutical, biotech, NGO and academic sectors about sharing patents for biotechnology relevant to developing countries.

Right now, Penn is in an excellent position to encourage Ivy League schools who have not signed on to the access document (Cornell, Columbia and Dartmouth) to do so, in order to represent a unified and powerful bloc of institutions in support of increased access to medicines worldwide.

Finally, it’s important that Penn continues to influence the access document itself. We can do this by first holding the University accountable to the document’s stipulations, and secondly by advocating to strengthen its provisions in each biennial review.

As a university founded on ideals of pragmatism and public service and an institution at the forefront of medical technology, Penn should continue to be a leader in guaranteeing that our most innovative work in medical research helps those who need it the most.

Katherine Rea is a College junior from Saratoga, Calif. Her e-mail address is rea@dailypennsylvanian.com.

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