WHO Director-General addresses symposium on intellectual property and trade

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Opening remarks at a joint WHO/WIPO/WTO technical symposium on public health, intellectual property and TRIPS at 20
Geneva, Switzerland

28 October 2015

Mr Roberto Azevedo, Dr Francis Gurry, distinguished experts, ladies and gentlemen,

I welcome this opportunity to look at experiences, and the data they have generated, since WTO was established and the landmark TRIPS agreement was reached 20 years ago.

Issues of intellectual property and trade are extremely important to WHO Member States. I particularly welcome today’s panel that will be looking at what the data have to say about the agreement and the use of its flexibilities, especially to create benefits for public health.

As we all know, the negotiations that led to the agreement were highly contentious, characterized by vast differences in the views of wealthy and poorer countries. Some differences, and discontent, linger.

In the spirit of articles 7 and 8 of the agreement, the purpose of patents is not just to allow the patent owners to obtain economic returns from the grant of market exclusivity. Patents promote technological innovation, but they should also contribute to the dissemination of technology, to the mutual advantage of producers and users alike.

According to TRIPS, patents are granted in the public interest, including through the promotion of social and economic welfare within countries. TRIPS leaves countries some much-needed flexibility to adjust patent rights to maintain the desired balance with other important national priorities.

Today, most discontent is generated by the demands of wealthy countries for intellectual property protections that go well beyond those negotiated in the TRIPS agreement. Poorer countries are concerned about the growing number of TRIPS-plus obligations that are embedded in new bilateral and regional trade agreements.

Innovations that result in better medicines, vaccines, and other medical products represent great potential benefits for health. But to realize these benefits, we must ensure access for those in greatest need.

An affordable price is one of many determinants of access. As we know from recent shortages of snake anti-venoms, prices have to be high enough to keep companies in the market.

But as we have also seen in recent years, there are limits to what doctors, patients, insurance companies, and politicians will consider an acceptable price, even in very wealthy countries.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This year’s Nobel prize in medicine was awarded to scientists who developed drugs to treat malaria and several neglected parasitic diseases. It is good to see the treatment of diseases that disproportionately affect the very poor get this kind of attention on the world stage.

This sends an important message. In matters of health, the poor deserve the very best that medicine and science can offer.

Medicines have been making the headlines for two other reasons: strikingly high prices, especially for new drugs for various cancer indications and for hepatitis C, and speculation about how the Transpacific Partnership agreement might affect the market for generics and biosimilars and increase the cost of medicines.

When new bilateral and regional trade and investment agreements are negotiated, I ask WHO Member States to scrutinize their provisions very closely for any potential impact on access to affordable medical products.

I ask Member States to scrutinize mechanisms for the settlement of investor-state disputes that might interfere with a government’s sovereign right to adopt legislation that protects citizens from harmful products, like tobacco.

Prices for the latest generation of hepatitis C drugs, some of which cost $1000 per pill, have raised some serious issues. No one questions the breakthrough represented by these medicines. They cure more than 90% of patients, following a shorter duration of therapy than previous treatment regimens.

Nonetheless, the high costs have stimulated considerable debate around issues of fairness. What is a fair profit for an R&D-based company? The costs have forced some national health services to ration treatment. Which groups come first?

For public health, the biggest question is this: how to extend the benefits of these medicines to the developing world, where the vast majority of infected people live? Again, this is a question of fairness.

In this regard, Egypt’s experience in securing medicines to treat its high hepatitis C burden illustrates a collaborative pathway that promotes social and economic welfare within countries.

Later today we will hear more about this experience and the role that voluntary license agreements can play in improving access.

The Medicines Patent Pool was established following a recommendation of the WHO Global strategy and plan of action for public health, innovation and intellectual property.

The Pool, which marks its fifth anniversary this year, has produced a remarkable track record in using license agreements to improve access to HIV treatments in middle-income as well as low-income countries. I welcome the intention of this Pool to extend its work to negotiate licensing agreements that expand access to tuberculosis and hepatitis C treatments.

The Pool, with its public health-driven business model, has pioneered ways to improve access by partnering with generic and originator companies alike. This is a new system of IP management that engages industry and shows great promise for the future.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The overarching objective of the agenda for sustainable development is to put the world’s poor and vulnerable populations first, not last. The fair interpretation and implementation of the TRIPS agreement can contribute to that goal.

In a spirit of fairness, WHO supports an extension of the TRIPS transition period for least developed countries, allowing them to continue to choose whether they want to grant patents on pharmaceutical products or not.

Thank you.