May 21, 2018

The Global Shortage of, and Access to, Medicines and Vaccines

In its January Executive Board meetings, WHO leadership and staff doubled down on its problematic approach to health innovation with the Director-General’s report on addressing the global shortage of, and access to, medicines and vaccines. The report and the meeting avoided a real discussion on health access in favor of a divisive, narrow attack on patented medicines.

This report does little to improve access to medicines and vaccines, instead furthering a myopic focus on patented medicines. Despite these obvious flaws – and significant efforts from key member state voices – this report will live on at this week’s WHA, spurring heated, nonproductive conversations that will get us no closer to solving real access challenges.

Sadly, this report reflects the WHO’s seeming determination to pursue an increasingly divisive and unbalanced focus on patented medicines. This approach has been doggedly pursued by WHO staff and member states through not only WHO channels, but also the 2016 U.N. High Level Panel on Access to Medicine (UNHLP) Report, and reflect an attempt to push WHO to claim the leading role in undercutting innovation and intellectual property rights and frame the discussion as one of health versus economic growth.

In fact, the Director-General’s report provides cover for the WHO to promote laws and policies that would eliminate vital intellectual property right protections and dictate health and pricing policies to national governments. A prime example is the call to action on compulsory licensing, moving beyond the narrow circumstances defined in documents such as the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health to promote broad, indiscriminate use of such practices in ways that provide cover for local protectionism and undermine innovation.

Such actions directly undermine the proven system of intellectual property rights that have, for decades, helped to develop today’s most cutting-edge cures – and that will be needed to create the cures of tomorrow. Moreover, such a strategy purposefully pits the WHO against member states in these instances, creating an unprecedented and destabilizing conflict of interest.

At the WHA, member states have an opportunity to reject this path forward, instead urging the WHO to halt efforts to promote the findings in the deeply biased and widely criticized UNHLP, and instead conduct a more open, inclusive conversation about sustainable paths to promote better access to medicine and health technologies.