In early February, the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Executive Board will convene in Geneva and debate how to encourage more research and development (R&D) into treating diseases affecting the developing world. The 34 countries on the Executive Board – a key decision-making body that guides the WHO’s work on global health – have an opportunity to promote the role of strong intellectual property (IP) rights in spurring medical innovation.
On the Executive Board’s agenda this year is the WHO’s Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health and Intellectual Property (GSPOA). Negotiated among countries and adopted by consensus in 2008, this framework helps guide policies to drive the discovery of new treatments and cures for diseases that have an outsized impact on patients in developing regions. Critically, the GSPOA recognized the importance of IP protections as “an important incentive in the development of health care products.” At the Executive Board meeting, countries will review steps to improve implementation of the GSPOA.
At this discussion, country delegates can underscore the vital role of patents and other IP rights in catalyzing scientific progress and ensuring patients all over the world have access to the medicines they need. Helping countries set appropriate IP policies – and drive new research into the most pressing global health challenges – was, after all, the intended purpose of the framework.
Unfortunately, there have been attempts to invoke the GSPOA to undermine the very IP protections that are so crucial to improved public health. There have even been calls on governments to break patents on new innovations through an extreme measure called compulsory licensing. This not only threatens to weaken IP systems across the globe but also goes against research that continues to refute the misguided notion that IP is a barrier to improved health.
Instead of advancing the flawed argument that we must weaken IP systems to improve global health, WHO members should take a stand and urge the WHO to promote polices that will strengthen the level of IP protections in countries around the world.
Eroding IP protections threatens to jeopardize the innovation landscape, decelerating R&D for potentially groundbreaking treatments and cures and ultimately making it more difficult for patients to access the medicines they need. Fortunately, several of the countries currently serving on the WHO’s Executive Board have demonstrated a deep understanding of the importance of supporting and incentivizing innovation to improve global health world. These countries’ commitments to championing innovation and protecting IP is evident in recent statements in international forums:
- Australian officials have underscored the impact of IP and innovation, noting “we know from our own experience in Australia that the global economy is increasingly knowledge-based and innovation-driven, with intellectual property supporting economic growth and prosperity for developed, developing and least developed countries alike,” and maintaining that they “do not consider that the IP system is a barrier to access to medicines and vaccines.”
- Likewise, Austria has maintained in international forums that IP is necessary to “to stimulate creativity and innovation and thus contributing to economic, cultural and social development of all countries,” urging countries to “continue and even expand efforts and activities to further strengthen the overall IP-environment…”
- Germany also continues to be outspoken on the importance of IP protections and the vital role innovation plays to global health. With regard to improving access to medicines, the country firmly maintains that we must “employ an approach which correctly depicts the role of IP as stimulator for innovation in the medical treatment of patients,” and recognized that we must take IP into account as “incentive in research and clinical progress.” Germany has also noted, “the [IP] system is a decisive driver for innovation and creativity both at the national and the international level.”
- Japan has championed IP and innovation in recent public forums as well, stating that “it is necessary to provide incentives such as investment and intellectual property protections for companies and research institutions to promote R&D, especially for R&D,” and maintaining that Japan “strongly believe[s] that improving IP systems will achieve self-sustained economic development in developing countries as well as contribute to developing the global economy.”
Instead of advancing the flawed argument that we must weaken IP systems to improve global health, WHO members should take a stand and urge the WHO to promote polices that will strengthen the level of IP protections in countries around the world. This should go hand in hand with efforts to find comprehensive solutions to the real barriers – like weak supply chains, inadequate health workforces and poor health financing – that impede access to medicines.
Protecting and appropriately enforcing IP rights incentivizes the high-risk research needed to find new, potentially lifesaving medicines. Executive Board members should pave the way for more breakthrough discoveries that could change the lives of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Read more about Executive Board member’s positions on intellectual property here.