By William New, Intellectual Property Watch

World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan was re-elected for another term at the annual May World Health Assembly. Now the WHO has issued a “report card” showing how she kept her promises during the first term. This includes a range of steps to ensure new drugs are affordable and accessible, even if intellectual property rights make them high-priced and hard to get.

The commitment the WHO took on was to: “Ensure that interventions, including new drugs, that arise from these initiatives are affordable and accessible to those in need.”

In response, it listed various activities and initiatives that member states have taken in the past couple of years, including adoption of the Global Strategy and Plan of Action for Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property.

“The Global Strategy set out the framework, and laid the groundwork, for multiple ways to improve access to essential products,” it said.

WHO specified the effectiveness of its work in helping developing countries use the built-in flexibilities in the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for public health purposes.

“Moral pressure on industry, also using flexibilities in the TRIPS agreement, contributed to dramatic reductions in the price of antiretroviral therapy, with the annual costs of treatment dropping, within a decade, from $30,000 to $200,” it said.

The report also mentioned ways in which “WHO endorsement of new products can likewise stimulate dramatic price reductions for developing countries.”

And it mentioned several key vaccine-related initiatives, including one on meningitis that meant that “For once, the best technology that the world, working together, can offer was introduced in Africa.”

Other areas mentioned include financing of research and development of products for neglected diseases, affordable medicines against noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), and a framework to ensure fairness in fighting pandemic influenza.

“In May 2012, the World Health Assembly approved a way forward for exploring innovative ways of financing R&D to produce new products for neglected diseases of the poor,” it said.

On NCDs, it said: “The relentless rise of chronic noncommunicable diseases, especially in the developing world, is certain to create new challenges for access to affordable medicines. While many essential medicines for managing these chronic conditions are off-patent and available in low-cost generic form, the millions of people now affected, and the duration of needed treatment, take these products beyond the reach of health budgets in most developing countries.”

Additional areas of work described in the report are help to engender local R&D in developing countries such as in Africa, and WHO’s role and relationship with other organisations.

There is some mention of the inability to complete work due to funding shortages. Furthermore, one area of shortcoming was in the mandate to “integrate WHO activities across the health research spectrum to promote health and to prevent and control disease.”

“In May 2010, the Health Assembly approved a WHO strategy on research for health. However, this commitment has not been fully met,” it said. “In 2013, the World Health Report will be devoted to health research, with a particular focus on research that improves access to essential medicines and services and supports the goal of reaching universal health coverage.”

The WHO report is available here [pdf].

William New may be reached at

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