WHO Director-General launches joint report on public health, intellectual property, and trade

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Remarks at the launch of the joint WHO/WIPO/WTO report on Promoting access to medical technologies and innovation
Geneva, Switzerland

5 February 2013

Your Excellency, Ruth Dreifuss, Mr Francis Gurry, Mr Pascal Lamy, ladies and gentlemen of the press,

This is a big report with a noble ambition. That is: to help countries promote access to medical technologies, and stimulate the development of new products, especially for diseases of the poor.

Every country in the world is worried about spiraling health care costs. No one in the world wants to see people die or suffer because of lack of access to essential medicines.

In the past, trade rules and the intellectual property regime have been viewed by many as barriers to the pursuit of public health goals, especially those that seek fairness in access to the benefits of innovation.

Certain practices can make prices artificially high and delay the market entry of more affordable generic products. Incentives for product innovation are weak, sometimes non-existent, for markets that cannot pay.

The report being launched today addresses all of these issues and shows how many problems can be overcome. The report is the outcome of a unique collaboration among three agencies: the World Health Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and the World Trade Organization.

As documented in nearly 250 pages of facts, explanations, and practical examples, the policy spheres of public health, intellectual property, and trade share much common ground and many social values.

All of these policy spheres should operate in the public interest. As we all know, medical products differ in significant ways from other consumer goods. For this reason, the international systems that govern intellectual property rights and trade have health-specific provisions.

These systems have numerous checks, balances, exemptions, exceptions, and flexibilities that make it possible to interpret and apply laws and rules in the interest of public health.

Access to medicines is influenced by market forces but also by a long chain of policy decisions on issues ranging from the granting of licenses and use of regulation, to taxes, tariffs, markups, and numerous measures for price control.

This, I believe, is the biggest achievement of the report. It demystifies an intricate and extremely complex landscape of laws and policies and makes them accessible to the non-specialist.

In so doing, it sets out a comprehensive and coherent inventory of legal instruments and policy options that you, as sovereign member states, can draw upon to craft measures that meet national public health objectives.

It illustrates how policy options and flexibilities actually operate through abundant practical examples from countries, in different parts of the world and at different levels of economic development. And it demonstrates some impressive results.

Trade stimulates competition. Competition gets prices down, increases the volume of supplies, and improves their predictability.

As documented in the report, some countries pay nearly twice as much as necessary when purchasing pharmaceuticals. Good government procurement policies, as set out in WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement, could reduce much of this waste.

Let me be clear. Not all problems have been solved and not all issues have been resolved. One of the biggest problems comes from practices that delay the market entry of generic products. This hurts public health.

The report also describes new models for innovation and new incentives, such as prize funds and grants, that can stimulate R&D for diseases that disproportionately affect the poor.

Such models deserve close attention. If prices for some products, like cancer treatments, are too high, governments will opt for more severe ways to control prices or issue compulsory licenses. This is happening right now.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have a final comment. I mentioned flexibilities.

An important flexibility in the TRIPS Agreement gives least developed countries a transition time, extended until 1 July 2013, before obliging them to implement provisions in the Agreement.

I fully respect the sovereignty of the multilateral systems in WTO and WIPO. From a public health perspective, an extension of this transition period is worth consideration.

Thank you.