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January 25, 2019

An Inclusive Approach to Improve Global Access to Medicines

Health officials from nations around the globe are convening in Geneva to set the global health agenda for the coming year at the annual World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board (EB) meeting.

Several critical topics will be discussed at the upcoming meeting—non-communicable diseases, eradication of polio, and responding to disease outbreaks—but perhaps none is as critical as access to medicines, which is expected to be a central topic of discussion.

Improving access to medicines is an important issue for all, and one that requires comprehensive efforts to tackle the most important barriers to access – and requires all parties working together in the fight. As policy initiatives are discussed and voted upon, members should reaffirm the importance of critical stakeholders’ contributions and expertise, especially those of private-sector actors. The WHO and its members must put forward smart policies based on sound science and evidence that will address today’s health challenges without undermining the ability to fix the ones of tomorrow. This is especially important because the WHO’s policy recommendations do not stay in Geneva and are often used as roadmaps for national governments.

As it stands, the EB agenda still reflects the WHO’s divisive approach to the issue. It references two WHO documents, a draft road map on access to medicines and vaccines and a new report on access to cancer medicines, that embody the WHO’s ineffective approach to intellectual property (IP) rights and the pricing of medicine. These wrongly single out IP protections purely as an obstacle, and not as a solution, to global health access. The resulting approaches would reduce the ability of the private sector and other actors to invest in research and development to tackle global health challenges. Blaming patents as an issue is exemplified in the WHO’s continuous push to make unfettered use of tools to undermine intellectual property, including compulsory licensing, as a means to provide cover for local protectionism and undermine innovation.

Research has found that strong IP rights actually promote faster drug diffusion, meaning patients get access to new cures faster, while price controls slow that access. Additionally, studies suggest that price controls weaken drug innovation, cutting off the ability to create new cures and harming future patients.

Going down a path that disregards IP rights would have dramatic consequences for manufacturers and businesses in the U.S. and other innovative countries, as such recommendations would impair their ability to innovate. This is a major concern in the context of access to medicines because the U.S. is the main source of global drug invention. Instead, the WHO should focus on true barriers to access—weak and underfunded health care systems, poorly trained health personnel, and bad infrastructure.

If the WHO is serious about tackling the issues it is shining a light upon at this year’s EB meeting, it is critical that it produce a proactive, reform-based, mission-focused agenda, and avoid promoting narrow-minded, exclusionary policies not based on sound evidence that undermine innovation.