The thirty-four countries of the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Executive Board, a key body that helps guide the WHO’s work on global health, will convene for its 144th session in Geneva this week to discuss topics ranging from polio eradication to the health implications of climate change. A key agenda item is the WHO’s proposed Roadmap on Access to Medicines, which sets priorities for the WHO’s work on medicines around the world over the next five years.
Delegates can both rebut the idea that weakening intellectual property will improve access, and focus the WHO on tackling the real barriers to access.
This meeting presents a critical opportunity for delegations to shape the discussion about how the WHO should approach this issue. Fortunately, the Executive Board includes a number of countries with a strong records in championing the role of intellectual property and innovation in developing breakthrough technologies and cures that can improve, not hinder, medicines access and overall global health. Their statements in recent international meetings demonstrate this commitment:
- Australia’s health officials have called on stakeholders to address essential issues around access to medicines, while emphasizing also that they “do not consider that the IP system is a barrier to access to medicines and vaccines.” Australia has also urged a focus on the true barriers hindering access “across all stages of the value chain from financing for R&D to regulatory processes, manufacturing, supply, reimbursement arrangements, and pricing,” calling for comprehensive solutions that “account for these complexities and the interrelationship of all contributing elements.”
- Germany has also staunchly defended intellectual property, noting the country “sees the protection of intellectual property, in particular through patents for pharmaceutical products, as part of the solution, namely as an important incentive for innovation.” Going further on medicines and access, the country has noted “it is imperative that we must employ an approach which correctly depicts the role of IP as stimulator for innovation in the medical treatment of patients” and has recognized that we must take into account IP’s role as “incentive in research and clinical progress.”
- Japan has also recognized the need for comprehensive solutions, stating “improving access to medicines and vaccines in each country requires a comprehensive approach taking various factors in to account…not only intellectual property rights and drug prices but also national health administration, the quantity and quality of human resource for health, access to medical facilities, and the supply system for medicines and vaccines.” The country has also cautioned WHO on promoting measures that weaken intellectual property rights (in this case TRIPS flexibilities), noting “it seems to be out of WHO’s mandate to provide ‘technical support’ about TRIPS provisions since TRIPS is under the WTO framework.”
- The United States has underscored the critical role innovation plays in addressing our greatest global health challenges, as well as the harmful burden that inappropriate use of compulsory licensing places on the countries funding novel research and bringing medical breakthroughs to market. The country has also specifically cautioned against taking action that could “limit our ability to advance R&D for therapeutics and other antimicrobial products in a way that encourages innovation and novel approaches,” and warned that the WHO should be “extremely cautious when considering work on IP issues.”
- Zambia has championed innovation, supporting “the priority of building capacity for the proper implementation of intellectual property laws” and “recogniz[ing] the importance of intellectual property and its potential to innovation and public health;” the country has also raised it has “embedded [IP] in its national health research act.”
As the WHO Executive Board considers how to improve access to medicines, these countries and other delegates can both rebut the idea that weakening intellectual property will improve access, and focus the WHO on tackling the real barriers to access, such as weak and under-funded health care systems, poor infrastructure and taxes/tariffs. Now’s the time to act and lead the charge on proactive and comprehensive solutions that address the real and complex obstacles to better global health.