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HEALTH: WHO Paves Way for Medicines for the Poor

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA , May 29 2006 (IPS) - The World Health Assembly concluded its annual session over the weekend with the adoption of a resolution that could change the concept of drug research and development, and open the door to a system that gives the world’s poor greater access to medicines.

The resolution approved by the Assembly, the supreme decision-making body of the World Health Organisation (WHO), urges the 192 member states to make the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals a strategic sector, thus committing themselves to making R&D of medicines consistent with public interest needs a priority.

This was the response of health ministers at last week’s meeting in Geneva to the concerns of developing countries and humanitarian non-governmental organisations, which criticised the tendency of transnational pharmaceutical companies to concentrate their R&D efforts on diseases prevalent in affluent countries.

The Assembly resolution is probably one of the most important ever taken on this issue, because it paves the way for a debate on intellectual property rights with respect to drugs, to take place over the next 10 or 15 years, the associate director of WHO’s essential medicines programme, Germán Velásquez, told IPS.

The decision will also have repercussions for patenting mechanisms regulated by agreements of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the director of the U.S.-based non-governmental Consumer Project on Technology, James Love, told IPS.

In the case of the WTO, patent regulations are contained in the Agreement on Trade- Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

Activists frequently refer to the “10/90 gap”, according to which only 10 percent of investment in R&D of new drugs is aimed at the so-called “orphan diseases,” which afflict 90 percent of the world population who live in the developing South.

In Saturday’s resolution, the WHO is attempting to reconcile the creation of new medicines with the need for them to be immediately accessible to people, Velásquez explained to IPS.

Under the present intellectual property regulations, patents may protect the sale of drugs for as long as 35 years, putting those medicines out of the reach of poor people because of their high prices.

Love pointed out that under the current system, pharmaceutical firms argue that the high prices of drugs are necessary due to the need to finance R&D.

But the Assembly’s resolution now urges member states to work with the WHO and other international bodies to support R&D of essential medicines, which are used to treat the most common illnesses in poor countries.

Love explained that the WHO decision will also have consequences for the bilateral trade treaties that the United States is negotiating with other countries, the intellectual property sections of which are called “TRIPS-plus” because some of the clauses are even more restrictive for developing nations than the original WTO agreement.

Negotiators for the United States try to get their partners in these bilateral trade treaties to introduce more stringent intellectual property rights, or accept higher prices for drugs, arguing that such policies promote R&D of medicines by the transnational pharmaceutical companies, Love said.

But that is going to change in the bilateral negotiations, and also in the multilateral agreements of the WTO and WIPO, because the old paradigm of TRIPS and “TRIPS-plus” will be replaced by the new paradigm for R&D of essential medicines, the expert said..

The World Health Assembly session, which began on Monday May 22, addressed two separate proposals concerning questions of public health, innovation and intellectual property rights.

One proposal, put forward by Kenya and Brazil, called for the creation of a framework to define priorities in world health, and support for the basic work of drug R&D.

The other initiative arose from a report prepared by a commission, designated by the WHO and presided by former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss. It proposed that member states should act to correct defects in the cycle of drug innovation that prevented people living in developing countries from getting proper medical attention.

Intellectual property rights are important, but as an instrument, not as an end in themselves, states the Dreifuss Commission report, which adds that their relevance to promoting necesssary innovation depends on the context and circumstances.

The Assembly accepted the proposal from Kenya and Brazil, to create an intergovernmental working group to draw up a strategy and an action plan that would guide future work on innovation and public health.

Non-governmental organisations praised the Assembly’s decision, which Velásquez called “historic.”

Love declared himself “impressed” by the result. “This is much better than we had thought,” he said.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a leading humanitarian medical aid organisation, also celebrated the decision.

This week we have seen health ministers take a leadership role and show that they want to establish priorities and find new ways of financing the development of new products so as to ensure that everybody has access to innovations, said Ellen ‘t Hoen, the director of MSF’s campaign for access to essential medicines.

The resolution, based on the proposal sponsored by Kenya and Brazil, will ensure that innovation in the field of medicine will be guided by patients’ needs, and not simply by profit, the MSF expert said.

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