WHO controversial policies straying from core mission to improve global health

This week’s World Health Assembly (WHA), being held in Geneva through May 26, is an annual opportunity for our world’s leaders to tackle the most pressing global health challenges. The 194 Member States of the World Health Organization (WHO) have sent delegations to the WHA to determine the policies, tactics and programs through which the WHO will carry out its vital mission to improve global health.

Unfortunately, this year’s WHA is likely to stumble on the critical issue of access to medicines. Making sure more patients have access to life-saving treatments is essential to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Yet the WHA’s agenda on medicines risks being hijacked by ideologues more interested in sustaining decades-old arguments about patented medicines.

Instead of finding productive solutions to this global health challenge, the WHA is likely to get sidetracked by proposals to undermine intellectual property (IP) rights. Some countries will use the WHA to push policies that would only further limit access to cures and treatments for patients around the world, instead of finding common ground with all stakeholders, including the private sector. This distracts from proactive conversations focused on developing solutions to the real barriers to access.

For the WHO to be effective, it must rise above these dead-end debates about IP. The Organization’s failure to do so shows how far the WHO has strayed from its core mission to improve global health. It’s now up to the Member State delegates to set a clear direction for the WHO’s work on access to medicines – and to hold it accountable if it fails to follow Member States guidance. 

The facts are clear: anti-IP policies actually limit patients’ access to cures and treatments. IP protection has long been the cornerstone of current and future medical innovation – and this has enabled access to today’s treatments and tomorrow’s cures. Given all the complex global health challenges, it’s ludicrous to argue that intellectual property is a barrier to access. More than 90 percent of the medicines the WHO deems “essential” are off patent, and still they aren’t available to nearly two billion patients around the world. Clearly the challenge of improving access to medicines is far more complex and will require strategies more thoughtful and comprehensive than simply blaming IP. 

Moreover, many countries would suffer greatly from the implementation of anti-IP policies, such as the routine use of compulsory licensing (essentially expropriation) of the IP of innovative drug manufacturers. Countries that enact such policies create a bad investment climate and inevitably end up with diminished private sector innovation. The international community, economists, and trade experts know this—it’s why these types of anti-IP policies have not been widely endorsed by the WHO’s Member States. And yet, certain countries and ideologically driven activists have continuously pushed this agenda at the WHO, encouraging the Organization to step outside its lane, engage on economic and trade measures far outside its area of expertise, and not uphold its responsibility to represent the broader WHO membership.

The international community, including the WHO, has committed itself to achieving the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If the Organization wants to get serious about achieving the SDGs, global health leaders need a new, more practical approach. They urgently need to address the complex barriers that are standing between patients and the medicines they need. It’s time we focus on the biggest obstacles to access – like poor health financing and infrastructure, supply chain issueshealth workforce shortages, and lack of patient education/health literacy.

In this week of WHA meetings and discussions, global health leaders have an opportunity to set a bold new course for the WHO. Instead of pursuing narrow, polarizing agendas, it’s time to produce holistic, balanced solutions that will make real positive impacts on communities. It’s only by addressing these real barriers to access that the WHO will realign with its core mission to improve global health.

Read more on the real barriers to access to medicines here.