WHO Plan Will Bridge Dispute Over Patents

By Ed Silverman

The World Health Organization’s member governments overcame a rift between rich and poor nations this weekend on how to manage intellectual property and endorsed a strategy to help developing countries gain access to more life-saving meds, Reuters reports.

At the agency’s annual policy-setting meeting in Geneva, governments also called for WHO Director-General Margaret Chan to finalize a plan to boost incentives for drugmakers to tackle diseases that mainly afflict the poor. “This is a major breakthrough for public health that will benefit many millions of people for many years to come,” Chan said at the end of the week-long WHO meetings, Reuters writes.

The intellectual property resolution requests that Chan “finalize urgently the outstanding components of the plan of actions, including timeframes, progress indications and estimated funding needs” to be reviewed at the next WHO assembly in May 2009.

The endorsement included agreement on exploring R&D incentives such as prizes; encouraging future talk about an R&D treaty; encouraging developing countries to adopt and implement legislation to prevent and penalize anti-competitive practices regarding patents; and encouraging creation of a global patent database, according to Essential Action, a public health advocacy group.

Public health activists applauded the hard-fought consensus reached by the 190 countries represented in the talks. “The WHO has taken a big step forward to change the way we think about innovation and access to medicines,” Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International, tells Reuters.

“Some important steps in the right direction have been made,” says Tido von Schoen-Angerer, the group’s director for access to essential medicines, says in a statement. He urged the WHO to support new incentives for drug makers, such as a prize fund for creating diagnostic tests for tuberculosis.

“The nations of the world have for the first time acknowledged that innovation and access are complementary public health objectives – that we can have innovation plus access,” according to a statement from Essential Action staff attorney Sarah Rimmington.

The WHO’s membership has been split over about how and whether to revamp the prevailing patent system, which critics argue make drugs unaffordable to many. Two years ago, the WHO’s member states set up a working group to assess R&D shortfalls in health, and ways to ensure more poor people can access meds, diagnostic tests and medical equipment, Reuters writes.

Stark differences in opinion between rich and poor countries on such issues as the the fairness of patents blocked consensus in the working group, whose “draft global strategy on public health, innovation and intellectual property” was ultimately adopted by WHO members on Saturday, Reuters reports.

Developing countries complain that drugmakers invest large sums to create treatments that wealthy consumers will spend money on, such as baldness, while overlooking deadly parasites and tropical diseases that kill, blind and disable millions of impoverished people each year, Reuters writes.

The question of drug access has also been taken up by the World Trade Organization in an accord making allowances for poor nations to create or buy copycat versions of patented drugs. But the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or “TRIPS,” agreement is criticized as too limited for the scale of drug access problems developing countries face, according to Reuters.

Wealthy nations have resisted calls to overhaul intellectual property rules, particularly the patents that give companies an exclusive right to sell drugs they develop for a fixed time and for relatively higher prices than generics. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations has called such protections critical for pharma to operate, Reuters notes.

– To explore R&D incentives like prizes that do not rely on patent monopolies and the prospect of charging high drug prices as a reward to iinnovators;

– To encourage future discussions of an R&D Treaty, which would involve agreement that all countries should have to contribute to global R&D, or at least participate in the R&D system, but that there should be differential obligations based on degrees of wealth;

– Developing countries must be encouraged to adopt and implement legislation that contains measures to prevent and penalize anti-competitive practices regarding pharmaceutical patents;

– The importance of creating a global patent database for drugmakers to promote both innovation and access to medicines;

– The WHO has a crucial role to play regarding health-related implications of patent and related intellectual property rules, and in particular, in proactively providing technical assistance to developing
countries that promotes the use of existing flexibilities in international trade rules, to expand access to new and existing patented treatments where there are price barriers.