WHO, WTO, WIPO Heads Call For More Medical Innovation

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The leaders of three top international organisations in Geneva last week discussed synergies in public health and called for increased collaboration and creativity to move medical innovation out of its quagmire of inefficiency. The opening session was marked by the head of the World Health Organization urging stakeholders to develop mechanisms to separate drug prices from costs of research and development. And the head of the GAVI Alliance, in the keynote address, discussed how patent thickets could impede access to vaccines.

The directors general of the WHO, World Trade Organization and World Intellectual Property Organization addressed the opening session of a joint symposium on Medical Innovation: Changing Business Models, held on 5 July. They presented their comments and evaluations of the current medical innovation landscape, providing different perspectives from health, intellectual property, and trade.

This was the third installment in the series of joint technical symposia on public health, intellectual property and trade convened by the three agencies. It was a follow-up to a recent trilateral publication, Promoting Access to Medical Technologies and Innovation.

The speech of WHO Director General Margaret Chan was perhaps the most critical of the current innovation system. She cited a “great mismatch” between big profit and saving lives, describing the drug discovery process as “inefficient”. She underscored the need for innovation, because in her 40 years of experience, she had “never seen a major breakthrough” without innovation. Chan also drew attention to the drying-up of the antibiotic drug pipeline by asking why pharmaceutical companies are not investing in antibiotics.

Chan described the drug discovery problem as one of concern for all countries, not only developing ones. Chan said that there is a need to “deconstruct and divorce” prices of drugs from the cost of research and development, but that “divorce always costs money,” referring to the need to find financing in order to fill the gaps.

Chan noted, however, that during the last discussions on the report of the consultative expert working group (CEWG, on alternative funding models for medical R&D), there was “little appetite for a mandatory financing system,” and that it might be more effective if better use is made of what exists already. Chan reiterated the need for balance in areas of medicine innovation.

In the keynote address, GAVI Alliance CEO Seth Berkley explained how patents “go both ways” in terms of impeding access. He cited two examples of hepatitis C and human papilloma virus, wherein patents were and were not barriers to access, respectively. In the case of hepatitis c vaccines, Berkley said due to strong patent protection and high upfront royalty fees, “small companies couldn’t enter the space” for R&D, and thus the early work on hepatitis c vaccine was impeded because companies could not engage in the development process.

Berkley said there is huge patent protection in vaccines now compared to the past. It will be interesting from GAVI’s perspective to get partners to engage in working together given the recent significant increase in patent filings. Berkley said that these “patent thickets” are a growing challenge for many new vaccines in the future.

WIPO Director General Francis Gurry opened the session by saying intellectual property in its broadest sense “is about the whole way in which society produces, distributes, and consumes information and knowledge.”

Gurry said the “emergence of organisational innovation has called for innovation in the way intellectual property is used.” He was positive in his outlook that intellectual property has responded well by adapting to the evolved relationships and structures of organisations. He added that intellectual property “is capable of being neutral and a flexible instrument for organising relationships all along the spectrum of the production, distribution and consumption of knowledge and information.”

WTO Director General Pascal Lamy said that the intellectual property system has the capacity to contribute and respond to humanity and public health needs but that it remains “essential to rethink, diversify business strategies” in such a way that is “win-win” to achieve better health outcomes for all patients and to create more incentive for commercial sector.

Lamy said the ultimate goal is to increase the system’s capacity to develop new medical technologies, especially for neglected diseases (those predominantly affecting poor populations and for which there is little market incentive for investment). Lamy pointed to the day’s symposium as an example of how to listen and learn from a wider base of expertise. “It’s possible to exploit the incredible wealth, diversity of experience which we have in Geneva” to change the way medical innovation is approached, he said.

The last comment of the session was delivered by Chan, who cautioned stakeholders not to “empire-build,” and instead to take advantage of all organisations and agencies to move things “fast-forward, quickly, instead of squandering money.”

Brittany Ngo is currently completing her Master’s in Health Policy and Global Health at the Yale School of Public Health and previously obtained a Bachelor’s of Arts in Economics from Georgetown University. Through her studies she has developed an interest in health-related intellectual property issues. She is a summer intern at Intellectual Property Watch.

Brittany Ngo may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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Comments

  1. Riaz Tayob says

    These are politicians playing the media and the audience and should not be believed until they change their practice… Chan’s WHO “gave” the Innovation and Neglected Diseases report to BigPharma before civil society got it, WTO’s Lamy will not come straight out and defend poor countries rights to use flexibilities for access to medicines – both however will come out and defend US pig farmers in Mexico saying pork is safe to eat during the Swine Flu pandemic though, and WIPOs Gurry has a technical assistance team who results in protecting flexibilities in poor countries is just shocking to say the least – he (as an institution) is not interested in flexibilities for the poor… reporting on these people needs to be backed up by assessment of practice… otherwise we get caught up in media spin…

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