WIPO-led Initiative to Tackle Neglected Tropical Diseases

26 October 2011

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) launched a new consortium today, 26 October, aiming to accelerate the discovery and product development of medicines, vaccines, and diagnostics, with the goal of developing new solutions for those suffering from neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), malaria and tuberculosis.

The initiative is part of  efforts to ensure that the intellectual property system can positively contribute to foster research and development (R&D) and innovation that tackle such diseases, as well as greater access to relevant treatments.

The initiative, named WIPO Re:Search, would provide qualified researchers all around the world with access to valuable intellectual property that could be used to develop ways to address NTDs, malaria and tuberculosis. It has been jointly launched with BIO Ventures for Global Health, a non-governmental organisation that is "committed to helping biopharmaceutical companies find ways to participate in global health."

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over one billion people are affected by neglected tropical diseases such as dengue fever, African sleeping sickness, and rabies, in addition to malaria and tuberculosis.

Currently eight pharmaceutical companies have signed on to the initiative, in addition to other institutions, including the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), among others.

Initiative "first step of a long journey"

The "licenses will be available free of charge for least developed countries; for other developing countries, the costs will be negotiated," said WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry during the press conference.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan lauded the initiative, noting that "the demand for these products is huge since market forces fail to drive innovation in NTDs." Though the WHO cannot join as a member of the consortium, the organisation is providing technical advice and expertise.

"We are your biggest cheerleader," Chan said at a roundtable for the initiative's launch.

Also welcoming the initiative, Kenyan Ambassador to the United Nations Tom Mboya Okeyo reminded reporters at the launch that "this is the first step of a long journey; the most important thing is what happens in the future."

Initiative's potential

David Brennan, CEO of AstraZeneca - one of the providers under the initiative and the world's seventh largest pharmaceutical company- assured that his company would make all of their nearly 1,400 patent families available in the database and added that "patent rights do not have to be a barrier to access to health care."

"While some of our intellectual property is not intuitively oriented towards NTDs, it may be that researchers will find some value that we might not have seen... The more information we can make available, the more likely it is that we can contribute to solutions," he noted.

Gurry also underscored that WIPO Re:Search is "entirely in the spirit of the Development Agenda," the 45 recommendations that seek to mainstream the development dimension into WIPO's work.

Responding to questions regarding the relationship of this initiative to others already in place, such as the Medicines Patent Pool, Don Joseph - Chief Operating Officer (COO) of BIO Ventures for Global Health - said "strictly speaking, the Medicines Patent Pool relates to commercial products for HIV/AIDS; this is a R&D initiative and is not aimed at commercial products per se. It also does not include HIV/AIDS. The scope is different"

Mixed response

Reacting to the initiative, Médecins Sans Frontières - the Nobel award-winning international medical humanitarian group -criticised the ‘timid' licensing terms. They stated that, "by agreeing to licensing terms that have an unacceptably limited geographic scope, WIPO is taking a step in the wrong direction and setting a bad precedent for other licensing arrangements."

MSF called upon WIPO to expand the scope of this initiative to cover, as a minimum, all disease-endemic developing countries.

On its part, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), a public-private partnership working to deliver new treatments for neglected diseases, welcomed the WIPO initiative, indicating that it plans to join it both as a provider and likely user.

However, DNDi also called WIPO to "take a step further in terms of access, especially by including not only the least developed countries but all neglected disease-endemic countries and for "more transparency in licensing practices that have a public health goal."

"We have to go beyond the minimum" added Bernard Pécoul, Executive Director of DNDi, in a press statement.

ICTSD reporting.

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