Press Release

New Study Finds Some Poor Countries Paying 20 to 30 Times More for Basic Medicines Than Others

June 17, 2019

Researchers highlight big issues with drug purchasing and generic drug markets

Eva Taylor Grant
Center for Global Development

WASHINGTON – Basic, everyday drugs can cost up to 20 to 30 times more in some poor countries than others, according to a new study released today by the Center for Global Development. The study examined billions of dollars of health spending on common, life-saving medicines in developing countries, mostly in Africa and Asia. To date, it is one of the largest-ever studies on global health procurement.

“Developing countries are often paying far more for everyday drugs than they should be. Why do some poor countries pay 20 to 30 times as much as others for common medicines to relieve pain or treat hypertension? In large part, because of flawed drug buying practices and broken generic medicines markets,” said Amanda Glassman, one of the authors of the study and the executive vice president at the Center for Global Development.

“A robust market for generic drugs is a core part of an affordable health system. But in way too many countries, generic drug markets are broken and patients are paying the price,” said Kalipso Chalkidou, the director of global health policy at the Center for Global Development and an author of the study. “You need enough competition to keep prices low and quality assurance that consumers trust, or essential medicines are going to be much more expensive than they should be.”

The study had three main findings:

  1. In developing countries, prices for basic generic medicines can vary widely and far exceed wealthy-country prices. Some purchasers in low- and middle-income countries pay as much as 20 to 30 times more for basic generic medicines like omeprazole, used to treat heartburn, or acetaminophen (also known as paracetamol), a common pain reliever.

  2. Low- and middle-income countries purchase more expensive branded generic drugs rather than unbranded quality-assured generics. In the US, most drugs are either on-patent medicines or unbranded generics, but in many developing countries more expensive brand-name generics are widely used, because people are concerned about unsafe or counterfeit drugs. In the poorest countries, unbranded generics are only 5 percent of the pharmaceutical market by volume—in comparison to the US where unbranded quality-assured generics are 85 percent of the market by volume.

  3. There is little competition in the supply of essential medicines in low- and middle-income countries. The largest seller of products like contraceptives, cancer medicines, and antiparasitics can account for upwards of 85 percent of all sales in some countries.

“We’re talking about access to common medications for pain or high blood pressure, not the latest cutting-edge cancer drugs,” Glassman said.

“It’s not as exciting to talk about procurement as new health technologies or biotech breakthroughs,” she continued. “But drug purchasing is incredibly important, and if it’s done badly you end up with the poorest countries in the world paying some of the highest drug prices.”

You can read the full study at