NGOs See Possibilities For New Health R&D Framework

William New

24 May 2006
A key question among delegates, lobbyists and activists tracking intellectual property-related resolutions at this week’s World Health Assembly is what a proposed new research and development framework would look like.

The assembly is addressing two intellectual property-related resolutions aimed at finding ways to improve research and development for treatments of diseases in poor countries. It will take up the resolutions on Thursday morning (see related story to follow).
Among several meetings on the issue this week was a panel of experts at a 23 May meeting sponsored by Consumers International and the Consumer Project on Technology (CP Tech).
CP Tech Director James Love said there is a possibility that the framework proposal could be narrowed, for instance to tropical diseases only, and said governments should not agree if they are not ready to have an effective resolution. It “isn’t obvious” that WHO members are ready to have a resolution at this point, he said.
“We will have to see what is proposed, and the degree of public and government support for the alternatives,” he said in a Wednesday comment to the CP Tech listserve. “We also need to look at this as a process that could involve both short-term confidence-building steps, with more ambitious measures possible over a longer time period. We have to be realistic about the capacity of the public health community to engage on R&D issues, and also to recognize the importance of this initiative, and to explain the benefits in ways that are easy to understand.”
Love said at the event that NGOs favour encouraging private sector investment in R&D and are looking for more ways to “redirect” some R&D so that people are getting what they need. “This is not about driving out the private sector,” he said.
Patents, which give a monopoly to a producer, are a mechanism to stimulate R&D, Love said, and the policies being made usually are designed to keep prices as high as possible in order to help stimulate R&D. But this is problematic for poor populations.
Ellen ‘t Hoen of Médecins Sans Frontières said an R&D framework focused on essential medicines is necessary and should be global, driven by real health needs, and the political responsibility of governments.
“If we don’t get a framework to start tackling this we may miss the boat royally,” ‘t Hoen said. She also said the focus should not only be on mortalities, but equally on people living with untreated afflictions.
Martin Khor of the Third World Network said a discussion is necessary to decide what to do about the problem of a lack of medicines reaching poor people who need them, and urged support for both IP resolutions. He said the working group called for by the resolution based on the CIPIH report needs to be established “to begin work on these issues.”
Khor said the focus should be defining the problem, having governments look at where their spending on health R&D goes, and increasing the funds available for “serving people.” That would ensure that products would be made available cheaply to those who need it. The discussion needs to focus on what incentives are needed, he added.
Tim Hubbard of the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Centre described the human genome project under which the map of the human genome is available to all on the Internet. He said it has encouraged competition, and that the availability to everyone of data makes is valuable to everyone.
The project began in 2003. Hubbard said it is “very complicated to understand,” as it is essentially the full blueprint, which leaves it up to scientists, industry and anyone else to determine what to do with it. Developing cures or reaching other breakthroughs could therefore take years, even decades, he said.
An Indian health worker in the audience said products related to public health are not like other retail products, and said, “A lot of people think the resolution is a pretty good idea.”
Panellists said they sensed a willingness by the United States to further discuss the resolutions, despite reservations registered on the first day of the assembly.
Love listed other fora where policy on health R&D and intellectual property issues is being made, including the World Trade Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, the Group of Eight industrialised countries, and bilateral free-trade agreements. He questioned why the competent multilateral body for health issues would be the only one left out. “You’re talking about the R&D framework everywhere but the WHO,” he said.
The World Health Organization “needs to start a conversation about how we fund R&D, and this conversation should include discussions of how priorities are set, how the burden of paying for R&D is shared, and how we ensure access to new inventions,” Love said on the CP Tech listserve.
A new global framework for R&D could take different forms, depending upon country views,” he said. On example might be a “set of soft norms and more collaboration and sharing of information, focusing only on narrow areas of priority research.” Or, he added, “there might be support for a more comprehensive and formal agreement, such as the framework convention on R&D that was proposed by Brazil and a number of public health stakeholders.”
At the event, Love said that industry lobbyists and others are working to discourage WHO member governments from electing to discuss the R&D framework, perhaps because the discussion would include the poor countries which are not benefiting sufficiently from the existing framework. “They don’t want you to have a conversation here about how to fund R&D,” he said.
Source: IP-watch

William New
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