Conference May Boost WIPO Mandate On Food Security, Public Health 15/07/2009 by Kaitlin Mara for Intellectual Property Watch and William New 1 Comment Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)A conference at the World Intellectual Property Organization exploring and clarifying the connection between its work and several major public policy issues ended Tuesday with a look at public health and food security. Some commented that with the 13-14 July conference the organisation had found new global relevance in connecting its expertise on patents to the major concerns of the day. The meeting also addressed traditional knowledge, an area in which WIPO has had lengthy discussions if not yet substantive outcomes. “The conference, and the work programme that it carries forward, show that IP has moved to the centre of cross-cutting debates that defy traditional boundaries between separate policy domains, and between distinct areas of technical expertise,” said Pascal Lamy, director general of the World Trade Organization, said in an address Tuesday. “WIPO’s back,” a US industry representative said afterward. “In a short time, Francis Gurry has reset people’s expectations.” Some others found the event useful but indicated that it had not brought new ideas or directions. A developing country participant said afterward that the speakers list did not include enough IP experts from the South, and had a relatively non-interactive format with no panel discussions and little time for questions. There also was some question about the substantive outcome or follow-up of the discussions, which was left unclear. The conference examined the need for technology innovation and rapid technology diffusion. It also might provide a new focal point for the work of the Standing Committee on the Law of Patents (SCP), from which the idea of the conference grew. Speakers presentations are being posted online here. Traditional Knowledge Key for Public Health For many neglected diseases, the medicines are old, toxic, expensive, or in short supply, Cláudia Inês Chamas, senior advisor in the Secretariat of Sciences and Technology and Strategic Inputs at Brazil’s Ministry of Health, told the conference. “Access [to medicine] is not possible without reasonable efforts towards local capacity and the building of a local basis of knowledge,” she said. Part of a building such a local base means recognising the knowledge that is already there, said several speakers. The “African renaissance can only be borne on the role of indigenous knowledge systems,” said Yonah Seleti, director general of South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology. Indigenous people “have enormous economic and social potential” in their knowledge, but the current intellectual property system fails to protect that knowledge, he said, highlighting his office’s “farmer to pharma challenge,” which is intended to unlock the value in biodiversity and traditional medicines. But this means that IP must be seen as having environmental and social benefits as well as economic ones. But misappropriation of traditional knowledge must be stopped, said Vinod Kumar Gupta, head of the Information Technology Division at the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), a project of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in India. To that end, the TKDL is cataloguing traditional knowledge in a patent-like format so that it is easier to identify as prior art. An agreement with the European Patent Office in February has made the database available for patent examiners to use in grant procedures, and a similar agreement is expected soon with the US patent office, he said. Collaborative research between traditional knowledge and modern medicine can yield great public health benefits, but IP agreements must find ways to protect traditional knowledge. World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan in her remarks stressed the importance of innovation but said there is increasing urgency over finding ways to ensure more people share in the benefits of innovation. She cited high health care and medicines prices as providing an “absolute constraint” for poor households She called the WHO agreement on public health, innovation and intellectual property reached in May “one of the most difficult, and divisive, issues ever negotiated by WHO and its member states.” She stressed that, “in the field of health, public policy will remain imperfect as long as access to life-saving interventions is biased in favour of affluence.” But she did not call for radical change of the system. Chan gave several examples, “among many” under consideration, of creative ways being looked at (presumably in the secretive expert group underway at WHO this year) to eliminate the persistent problem of pharmaceutical companies needing to charge high prices in order to conduct research and development on diseases predominantly afflicting poor populations. The examples, including the UNITAID patent pool drug purchasing facility, appeared to centre on finding other sources such as large foundations and public funds to pay drug companies to carry out the R&D for such diseases. But she also mentioned a WHO “pre-qualification” programme that is helping developing country producers achieve needed levels of quality. Speakers for industry at the conference highlighted the key role of IP rights, but said that they need not prevent efforts towards public health. Tony Wood, vice president of medicinal chemistry at pharmaceutical company Pfizer Global Research and Development, intellectual property is “absolutely essential from the researchers’ point of view.” It takes, he said, 10 to 12 years between inventing the right molecule and undertaking all the necessary testing and trials to bring it to market. Without patents, the research would be held as a trade secret while that testing was happening, holding back medical research that is aided by disclosure in patent applications, he said. Joseph Straus of the Max Planck Institute for Intellectual Property agreed, saying “a precondition of access to medications is their existence” which means research and development must be incentivised. But, said Robert Sebbag, vice president of access to medicines at pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis, “You shouldn’t keep thinking in terms of a plot where [pharmaceutical companies] are trying to rip people off.” The economic model of pharmaceutical companies needs to change if they are to be a solution, he added. The global south is a growth area for pharmaceutical companies, but companies need to think of lower-profit medicines at a higher volume. Also necessary is education and communication. All the anti-retroviral drugs possible would still not solve Africa’s HIV/AIDS crisis without proper use, Sebbag said, highlighting the case of mother-to-child transmission. To really help, the mother must not only understand when and how to take medication to protect her child, but also must be in a treatment programme of her own. This may require fighting social stigma as well as lack of medical knowledge and the ongoing problem of educated medical professionals leaving countries that desperately need them, he said. Solving the Food Crisis The number of malnourished people in the world has topped one billion, said Algerian Ambassador Idriss Jazaïry. “World hunger is increasing,” said Shakeel Bhatti, secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). And access to seeds has a food security impact. The seed treaty has, he said, made significant breakthroughs in funding its access and benefit sharing system while waiting for the built-in time lag of 5 to 7 years before commercial products start growing out of it. What is needed, said Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), is “a new green revolution that builds on the achievements of the first and learns from both its successes and failures.” The green revolution was a period of rapid growth in agricultural yields, especially in Asia, after the introduction of new plant varieties. But the economic success that resulted also came with consequences in the form of environmental degradation and pest resistance, he said. “WIPO’s role here is to ensure that the system for IP protection contributes to the creation of new food and agricultural resources, but at the same time does not become an obstacle to the most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable places having access to them,” said Jazaïry. Intellectual property rights, said Jazaïry, could be used as a justification for food cartels, but could also be a tool to alleviate hunger. How this plays out depends on the international community. “It is not tenable,” said Nwanze, “to separate IP from sustainable development.” Intellectual property rights can serve as catalysts for sustainable agricultural growth, but there needs to be a shift in thinking from the public/private divide for technology development to one of partnerships and equitable benefits for both stakeholders, he added. Richard Jefferson, chief executive of non-profit Cambia, proposed one way in which the system might be set up to do that. The Initiative for Open Innovation, a new project in collaboration with WIPO and the Gates Foundation launched this week, aims to create a “free, open, global web-based facility” that will map in all languages not only patents, but also regulatory data and science and technology literature, cross-referencing them with key genes and compounds to allow for a clear picture of what is patented, where it is patented, and who controls it. Comparing the current system to early ship navigation, where inadequate information was a common problem, Jefferson said that such risks prevent the participation of small innovators. As a part of the Initiative for Open Innovation, Cambia is proposing the creation of a new legal tool they call a “concord,” a mutual agreement not to assert IP rights in a particular field of use. For example, he said, companies might agree not to assert any IP related to “research, development, manufacture, delivery or support of” malaria interventions. The patents might be enforced for other purposes, but this allows for collaborative innovation to solve particular problems, and will reduce the cost of small players who want to work on such problems. Even free-riders who join a concord without IP of their own “are not a drag, but potential innovators.” This moves us, he said, from “here there be dragons,” to “here there be ports, reefs, etcetera.” Michael Kock, the global head of IP at agriculture technology firm Syngenta International, compared the seed industry to the entertainment industry, saying copying and counterfeits were major problems. “We don’t patent” for small holding farmers in developing countries, he said, but in agribusiness, these enforcement issues are a problem. Disclosure of origin, which has been proposed as a way to protect small growers, is a problem because it increases uncertainty for innovators and will discourage the use of genetic diversity. Harmonisation of plant protection is a better idea, he said. Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) Related Kaitlin Mara may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.William New may be reached at email@example.com."Conference May Boost WIPO Mandate On Food Security, Public Health" by Intellectual Property Watch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.