TWN Info Service on Health Issues  (Apr16/14)
29 April 2016
Third World Network

Academics call for WHO R&D agreement discussion to advance

Geneva, 29 April (K M Gopakumar) – A total of 428 academicians, researchers and scientists have submitted a petition requesting World Health Organization Member States to advance and inform discussions on an agreement to support a coherent, sustainable and needs-driven agenda on biomedical research and development (R&D).

This submission was made at in advance of upcoming Open-Ended meeting of WHO Member States on the recommendation of the Consultative Expert Working Group on Research and Development: Financing and Coordination (CEWG). It is titled “Make Medicines for People Not for Profit - Towards an Agreement on Biomedical Research and Development for the Public Benefit: Academia's Urgent Call to Action”.

[The CEWG has recommended a binding agreement based on Article 19 of the WHO Constitution aimed at providing effective financing and coordination mechanisms to promote R&D. According to the CEWG “the convention should focus on the development of health technologies for Type II and Type III diseases as well as the specific needs of developing countries related to Type I diseases”.]

The Open-Ended meeting is to take place 2-4 May at the WHO Headquarters in Geneva.

The signatories include Nobel laureates Professor Joseph Stiglitz (Member of the National Academy of Science and Corresponding Fellow, Royal Society), Sir John Sulston (Fellow of the Royal Society), Edvard Moser (Professor and Director, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience and Centre for Neural Computation), May-Britt Moser (Professor and Director, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience and Centre for Neural Computation).

The letter with the list of signatories is attached.

The letter states that, “After over 10 years of debate at WHO, a number of initiatives have been developed and put into practice proving that a different way of implementing biomedical R&D is possible. Projects like the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative have shown that patient-driven innovation is possible at affordable cost and show that claims that it takes $2.56 billion to produce a drug are a myth”.

The letter sets out several examples of exorbitantly priced medicines and the public health failure of the current R&D system: “New Hepatitis C cures are marketed at an exorbitant $1,000 per pill. A generic drug treating toxoplasmosis saw a price increase of 5,000% overnight. Breast cancer patients in the UK are unable to access treatment and we are proving unable to stimulate real innovation to combat antimicrobial resistance. The current biomedical R&D system is no longer just failing the poor, it is failing us all.”

Further, the signatories express concerns on the impact of intellectual property on access to medicines. It notes that, “The international system is going in the wrong direction by strengthening intellectual property rights – with the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement as a lead example – that further advance corporate control over biomedical R&D. Preserving patent monopolies as the primary incentive for medical R&D results in exorbitant prices for medicines and medical technologies which endanger public health budgets and impoverish families.”

The letter highlights the role of patents in impeding the innovation.  “Innovation has slowed as the overproduction of ‘me too’ drugs has been incentivized, and legal restrictions have proliferated impeding the free flow of information for scientific progress. Patent monopolies increasingly enable rising drug prices, without any corresponding increase in innovation”.

The letter calls for a new approach to R&D: “A different system, based on principles of open access, open knowledge, open sharing and fair price, as well as incentives and mechanisms to encourage research and development of essential medicines according to needs of people worldwide, is possible”.  

The letter notes that different mechanisms being used that follow new approaches to R&D such as prize funds, patent pools, and open collaborative approaches have “great potential” but that “the initiatives are fragmented and lack coherence.” Therefore the call of the large community of academics is for a global agreement for an equitable biomedical R&D system as this can provide a much needed structure. “It can provide guiding principles which can move us to a system that incentivizes research and technology transfer based on global health needs and recognizes the human right to health. Now, more than ever, we must act”.

The letter also states  “As academics, researchers and scientists it is our responsibility to generate and transmit knowledge. We have a unique role to promote innovation in many fields and to ensure that our innovations are used to benefit the public. In no field are the moral imperatives to do so as clear as they are in medicine. At a time of huge progress in scientific research we are deeply concerned about the ability of the existing system to translate investment into better global health”.

The signature campaign was initiated by the Universities Allied for Essential medicines (UAEM), a movement of students working on access to medicines as part of their campaign on an R&D treaty. The campaign was launched in September 2015.  The primary focus of UAEM is “to convince universities to use their positions as patent-holders within this system to secure greater access to new technologies for the poor, while still maintaining the economic viability of innovation.”

Julia Montana Lopez of UAEM told Third World Network that the letter with the 428 signatures was handed over to WHO Director-General on 8 March.  More signatories are still being added.

Make Medicines for People Not for Profit: Towards an Agreement on Biomedical Research and Development for the Public Benefit: Academia's Urgent Call to Action (PDF)