Drug patents under fire

Health ministers from around the world will try next week to bridge differences over how to overhaul drug patent rules that developing countries say make life-saving medicines costly and inaccessible.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has struggled to find a way to encourage the development of effective, affordable medical treatments for parasites and tropical diseases that have long been overlooked by the pharmaceutical industry.

A draft WHO plan proposed two years ago was rejected by both the pharmaceutical sector and poor nations as inadequate, and failing to balance competing claims for lower prices and incentives for developing costly treatments.

An intergovernmental group convened to address those problems failed earlier this month to agree on alternatives to the prevailing patent system that gives companies the exclusive right to sell drugs they develop over a fixed period of time.

Ironing out differences
WHO spokesman Bill Kean said health ministers attending the United Nations agency's annual World Health Assembly would seek to iron out the disagreements that have impeded progress in the intellectual property field.

"Some of these (differences) we really do think will be sorted out during the WHA," he told a news briefing in Geneva.

Development activists also see the May 19-24 meetings as a critical moment for the drug access issue, which has also been taken up by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in an agreement that makes allowances for developing countries to create or buy copycat versions of patented drugs.

TRIPS too limited
The WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights or "TRIPS" accord has been criticised as too limited to cope with the problems poor countries face accessing medicines to fight HIV, malaria and other diseases that kill, blind and disable millions of people each year.

"It is now up to the World Health Assembly in May to translate bold ideas into concrete action," Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said in a statement. "What we need to see is a wider, more ambitious framework for R&D and political leadership, in particular from WHO."

Rich nations resisting
The United States and other rich nations have resisted a wholesale reform of intellectual property rules, which offer companies a return on their investments into developing new drugs, and help protect against counterfeits.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), whose members include Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Wyeth, Novartis, Merck, AstraZeneca and Sanofi-Aventis, has called patent protections key to health innovation.

Strong health care systems, efficient markets and adequate regulations are also needed to ensure people get the treatments they need, IFPMA Director Harvey Bale said in a statement.

"It is important to have a stable, enabling policy environment in each of these areas to ensure a sustained flow of new medicines for the benefit of patients worldwide," he said.

Critics have, however, questioned the assertion that patents are essential for new drug development and point out that the pharmaceutical industry spends double as much money on marketing than it does on research and development. (Click here to read our investigation into the patent system and possible alternatives.)

Facing health threats
In addition to the patent question, delegates from the WHO's 193 member states will consider next week how the UN agency should proceed in its efforts to confront the threat of pandemic flu, eradicate polio and fight obesity and diabetes.

They will also examine the links between climate change and health, assess progress in achieving UN goals on reducing child mortality and malnutrition, and consider ways to work more effectively with other international agencies, Kean said.

The WHO leads the development of global public health policy, including issuing advisories on which vaccines people need for international travel and guidance for countries coping with disease outbreaks or other emergencies.

It also collaborates with financing bodies such as the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the GAVI Alliance and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help improve standards of health care, especially in poor parts of the world. – (Reuters Health)

Read more:
Patents, pharmaceuticals, and the poor
HIV drug exploitation?

May, 2008

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