WHO Meeting Tackles H1N1, MDGs, Intellectual Property

19 May 2010

The 63rd session of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the annual meeting of World Health Organization (WHO), opened in Geneva on Monday. The meeting is examining a wide range of issues, including the organisation's response to the H1N1 outbreak and the achievement of health-related Millennium Development Goals. Health ministers are also expected to decide on WHO's future work in areas such as how to fund and coordinate health research, prepare for pandemic influenza, and stem the production of counterfeit medicines.

During this week's discussion, delegates discussed lessons that can be drawn from last year's outbreak of the H1N1 "swine flu" virus. Responding to criticisms that WHO had over-reacted, Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, emphasised that "had things gone wrong..., we would have a very different agenda before us today." She pointed out that the H1N1 outbreak was the most closely watched and carefully scrutinised pandemic in history. "It is normal that every decision and action, especially on the part of WHO, will likewise be closely scrutinised and critically assessed. We welcome this process," she added.

Senegal and a handful of other countries mentioned the difficulties that African countries had in dealing with the H1N1 pandemic. There is a "need for equal and timely access to vaccines through transfer of technology and transfer of knowledge to allow countries to produce their own vaccines," the countries said. Morocco echoed that sentiment, arguing that intellectual property rights (IPRs) "should not be monopolised" during an epidemic. However, Japan stressed that intellectual property "should be appropriately protected when developing vaccines and medical products, as it is essential to innovation," the Japanese delegation said.

The achievement of health-related Millennium Development Goals also received much attention in interventions by health ministers as they looked ahead to the next MDG summit, which will be held in September in New York. Chan underlined the need to "draw on every lesson, every approach, instrument, and innovative way of raising funds or collaborating together, from heads of state to civil society" to work toward achieving the MDGs within the next five years.

Delegates at the meeting also discussed access to vaccines and how drug makers around the world might be able to share influenza viruses to aid their research. In 2007, the WHA adopted a resolution that calls on member states to share, on equal footing, influenza viruses with pandemic potential. Since then, countries have clashed over the question of whether the sharing of benefits related to pandemic influenza preparedness should be mandatory or voluntary and how far Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) should be enforced in this context.

Delegates agreed that the open-ended group examining this issue should continue its work in looking into the pertinent areas of disagreement. It also decided that the group should report to the WHA next year.

In discussions on the implementation of the Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public health, Innovation and Intellectual property, the report of the Expert Working Group on Research and Development Financing generated much heated debate. The Working Group was established by the WHA in 2008 to look into new and innovative ways to fund and stimulate R&D for diseases that affect the world's poorest nations.

Several developing countries - including Ecuador, speaking on behalf of South American countries, India, Brazil and Kenya - argued this week that the Expert Working Group had not appropriately implemented its mandate. According to these countries, the report did not place enough emphasis on the central issues of delinking the cost of research and development from the cost of treatment or the intellectual property rights dimension. According to India, the report "failed to capture the variety of problems that are linked to IP."

Michelle Childs, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Access Campaign for Médecins Sans Frontières, said that her ogranisation shared concerns that insufficient attention was paid to "the need to de-link the costs of research and development from the price of health products." "The criteria used to evaluate proposals did not take proper account of the relevant aspects of intellectual property rights," Childs added.

Citing such concerns, a number of developing countries put forward a proposal to create a new intergovernmental working group that would take up the issues related to new and innovative ways to fund R&D under the Global Strategy and Plan of Action. However, this proposal was rejected by the EU, the US and Switzerland, who argued that such a committee could not be set up" without a mandate or expected outcome."

The US mentioned that it "had no problem in the way the Expert Working Group interpreted its mandate," which it said was "quite broad." Japan also mentioned that it "appreciated an excellent report."

No consensus was achieved the developing countries' proposal. Informal discussions will be held through the remainder of this week to decide whether a new expert group should be formed or if an intergovernmental committee will be established.

The issue of counterfeit medicines will also be discussed later on during the week.

The WHA will close on 21 May.

ICTSD reporting.

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