Geneva, 3 May 2008 — A UN health research and development (R&D) summit concluding in Geneva today has failed to take concrete action towards reforming a medical innovation system that largely disregards the health needs of millions of people in developing countries.

‘What we wanted to see was governments prescribe some change to a broken system, but they have not risen to the challenge,’ said Dr Tido von Schoen-Angerer, Director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)’s Access Campaign. ‘Concrete proposals to ensure urgently needed drugs and diagnostics are developed for developing country diseases have not received support. Considering the colossal needs we see in MSF daily practice, this is a lost opportunity.’

The Intergovernmental Working Group on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property (IGWG) was tasked with coming up with a blueprint to address the shortcomings of medical R&D and ensure access to health products.

The negotiations however failed to capitalise on the historic opportunity. Critically, there has been no agreement on the need to develop alternative incentive mechanisms for R&D. 

“Sticking to the status quo and putting all our faith on philanthropic organisations alone is not going to solve the problem,” said Dr von Schoen-Angerer. “What we need to see is a wider, more ambitious framework for R&D and political leadership, in particular from WHO. The negotiations have left the greater part of the job undone.”

The IGWG negotiations also minimised barriers to access to medicines posed by intellectual property rights, and it was difficult for developing countries even to keep long-established solutions to promote public health, such as the use of TRIPS flexibilities, at the centre of the agenda.

A number of developing countries also fought hard to keep their proposals for R&D reform on the table. It is now up to the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May to translate bold ideas into concrete action, since this meeting failed to do so.

The WHA will have to determine how progress can be made, for example, on new global rules to govern and steer R&D, on new incentive mechanisms such as the prizes for tuberculosis diagnostics and other essential health products, and on ways to decrease the price of health products and increase financing flows for R&D. 

Editor's Note:

The Intergovernmental Working Group on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property (IGWG) was set up by member states of the World Health Organization (WHO) in May 2006. World Health Assembly Resolution WHA59.24 urged the IGWG ‘to draw up a global strategy and plan of action…[that] aims at, inter alia, securing an enhanced and sustainable basis for needs-driven, essential health research and development relevant to diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries.’

In May 2007, World Health Assembly Resolution 60.30 instructed the WHO Director-General ‘to encourage the development of proposals for health-needs driven research and development for discussion at the Intergovernmental Working Group that includes a range of incentive mechanisms including also addressing the linkage of the cost of research and development and the price of medicines, vaccines, diagnostic kits and other health-care products.’