TWN Info Service on Health Issues (February 07/01)

2 February 2007

WHO Executive Board unable to move IP Group process

At the recent WHO’s Executive Board meeting several developing-country members have expressed concern at the lack of progress and direction of the WHO Intergovernmental Working Group on Intellectual Property, Innovation and Health.

The article below is reproduced with the permission of South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #6179, 30 January 2007.

With best wishes
Evelyne Hong

WHO: Executive Board unable to reinvigorate IP Group process

By Sangeeta Shashikant, Geneva, 28 January 2007

Several developing-country members of the Executive Board of the World Health Organisation have expressed concern and frustration at the lack of progress and direction of a WHO group tasked with charting the organisation's future action on intellectual property, innovation and health.

These concerns were voiced at the WHO's Executive Board meeting being held here on 22-30 January. At the end of the discussion on the item last Friday, the frustration was even more palpable because the Board itself could not seem to make any progress on the issue.

Some developing-country delegations and NGOs that are closely watching the process are now concerned that if the process is not strengthened, little if anything concrete would be achieved by the end of this year, when the WHO's Intergovernmental Working Group on Intellectual Property, Innovation and Health (IGWG) is scheduled to meet for a second and possibly final time.

At the formal session of the Board, Brazil described the inaugural meeting of the IGWG last December as "ridiculous", and "not an event that brings honour" to the WHO.

Kenya joined in to express disappointment. Thailand proposed a plan of action to reinvigorate the process but no formal decision was taken on it.

The developing countries and health-related NGOs have been pinning their hopes on the IGWG to develop a new global strategy and action plan to promote research and development and innovation in medicines and health care, while also treating IPR issues in a manner in which public health concerns take priority.

However, it became clear at the Board meeting that developing countries that have led this process are dissatisfied with the process so far, especially the lack of concrete results at the IGWG's inaugural meeting last December.

At the Board meeting last week, these countries called for a strengthened and expedited process to ensure that the IGWG produces a positive outcome this year. However, the Board discussion ended without any substantive results, while the WHO Secretariat announced its plans for this year's activities in this area.

At the start of the Executive Board meeting, Kenya and Switzerland tabled a draft resolution suggesting areas for early implementation of the recommendations of the WHO Commission on Intellectual Property, Innovation and Health (EB120/Conf. Paper No. 3).

The Commission had produced a report last year, which became a large part of the basis for the World Health Assembly decision last May to establish the IGWG.

The draft resolution selected some of the recommendations contained in the Commission's report, with the intention that they be adopted for early implementation. It contained two action points for member states to implement, and 10 points for the Secretariat.

This resolution was not discussed substantively during the Board's discussion on the item on 26 January (Friday). Instead, Kenya requested that consideration of the resolution be postponed, which was also supported by Switzerland and Namibia.

This followed a week of informal consultations on the resolution, which yielded little results. During an informal meeting hosted by Kenya and Switzerland on 24 January, there was a general feeling that the draft resolution was premature. Several delegates also felt that the content was too weak and had to be strengthened.

During the informal meeting, several members also vented their frustration over the outcome of the IGWG meeting held in December. Brazil said that it was not clear that there was a need for a resolution, to move ahead, adding that the IGWG was not successful as there were no good background papers presented at the meeting. The US also agreed with Brazil.

Apparently ready to respond to the allegations that the IGWG process lacked direction, Howard Zucker, WHO's Assistant Director General (ADG) in charge of the IGWG process, read during the formal Board meeting a detailed step-by-step process that would lead to the second and final meeting of the IGWG.

Zucker said that a letter had been sent to member states to solicit inputs on the Global Strategy and Plan of Action and proposals for experts and concerned entities (to be members of the IGWG) by the end of February. Using these suggestions, the Secretariat would prepare a draft global strategy and plan of action by July 2007 for review by governments.

The Director General in consultation with the Officers of the IGWG (on the basis of proposals received) will identify a pool of experts and concerned entities with a balanced representation between regions, he added.

In August and September, regional consultations could take place with identified experts and entities from the region in question contributing to the consultations, and that the regional committees may wish to discuss the outcome of the consultations. A second "public hearing" via the internet could be arranged also during those months, said Zucker, adding that it is intended that the second and final session be held in October to finalise the draft strategy and plan of action. Officers of the IGWG may also meet before the meeting to consider other possible inter-sessional work and the Secretariat will implement the CIPIH recommendations specifically addressed to WHO.

He also mentioned the setting up of task forces to map the research and development scene and the various stakeholders involved as well as a website for member states to contribute comments on a voluntary basis as to how they have implemented the Commission's recommendations.

This is the first time that such a detailed plan on the IGWG has been presented by the Secretariat, although several aspects of the process outlined by the ADG, are not however reflected in an information document later prepared by the Secretariat (EB120/INF. Doc/5). Some participants at the Board meeting speculated that such a plan was being presented to avoid Board members criticizing the Secretariat for its lack of initiative and blaming it for the weakness of the process.

The IGWG was set up following the 2006 World Health Assembly Resolution 59.24 that mandated its establishment to draw up a global strategy and plan of action in order to provide a medium-term framework based on the recommendations of the WHO Commission on Intellectual Property, Innovation and Health.

Such a strategy and plan of action should help secure an enhanced and sustainable basis for needs-driven, essential health research and development relevant to diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries, proposing clear objectives and priorities for research and development, and estimating funding needs in this area.

The IGWG is to report to the World Health Assembly in May 2007 giving particular attention to needs-driven research and other potential areas for early implementation action and to submit the final global strategy and plan of action to the WHA in 2008.

It was evident during last week's meetings that several WHO Board members and many NGOs were worried that the IGWG outlined a weak process between the December meeting and the second meeting (October 2007) and thus there would be no concrete results within the tight timelines set by the WHA resolution.

The IGWG merely decided that Members would submit comments on the global strategy and plan of action by February 2007, with the Secretariat preparing a text for negotiation by June 2007 and the possibility of holding another IGWG in October 2007.

Some Board members felt that the IGWG could have done better by outlining a more robust process with focus on expediting discussions on the drawing of a global strategy and plan of action.

At the Board meeting, Brazil called the December meeting "ridiculous", and "not an event that brings honour" to WHO or to itself, adding that it was not accusing any particular entity. It reminded Board members that the WHA resolution was adopted with "the spirit of Geneva" in which health was put as the foremost priority. However, this was not the case during the meeting in December, said Brazil.

It stressed that the Board should focus on strengthening the process and not the substance (referring to the Kenya/Swiss proposal).

Kenya stressed that the participants at the IGWG meeting were not pleased with the process. On behalf of the Africa Group, it said that the "process needs to move faster".

It also referred to an informal meeting during the week in which there was consensus that it was more prudent to strengthen the process without engaging in substantive discussions in the Board (referring to the Kenya/Switzerland proposal). Thus, it requested that discussion on its proposal be postponed.

Thailand agreed that the Board should focus on the process of the IGWG. The way forward following the submission by Members in February was not clear and there is need to maintain the momentum of discussions.

It proposed text that the Board request the Secretariat at all levels to pro-actively support the implementation of the WHA resolution by providing: (a) support to countries to contribute to the content and processes in the drafting of the Global Strategy and Plan of Action by mid March; (b) a summary, synthesis and elaboration of relevant documentations by June 2007; and ( c) support to member states to provide inputs to the IGWG's second meeting through the regional mechanism and intensive consultations.

However, the Thai proposal met a dead end following a query by the US to the WHO's legal advisor as to the powers of the Board to advise on the IGWG process. The legal advisor clarified that the Board can discuss and give recommendations to the WHA, but it cannot be the master of the process. It added that the Board would not be able to take decisions beyond what had been decided by the WHA or the IGWG.

The recently appointed WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan also intervened, saying that it was important to follow the IGWG process as set out by the WHA. However, she added that it was important to obtain different views and integrate them into the timeline presented, and pledged strong support for the process. +