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Thursday 19th April 2018

Patents 'need radical change'

12th May 2008

A prominent group of global health experts and Nobel prize winners has called on the international community to support radical new ways to boost research into diseases affecting the world's poorest people, in a move that has already met strong resistance from the pharmaceutical industry.


They will call at the forthcoming World Health Assembly in Geneva next week for an international research and development fund to be set up, which effectively means a big increase in government funding for such research.

The Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) is also seeking alternatives to the financial incentives of patents, arguing that the patent-based system is financially ineffecient and privileges lucrative markets at the expense of poor people's diseases.

The UAEM coordinates university researchers to promote research into diseases that affect developing countries but tend to be neglected because they lack the potential for substantial profits.

The call came under the banner of the WHO's Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property, which will report to the assembly next week.

The working group was commissioned to draft a global action plan on how to use R&D spending, innovation, intellectual property rights and other mechanisms to better address the health problems of developing countries.

The UAEM said WHO member states should support the exploration of new and innovative mechanisms that seek to correct the deficiencies of the current system.

One of the proposals is for a treaty on biomedical R&D which would free up a certain amount of funding from the revenues generated by the sale of drugs, a system which is currently favoured by the world's major pharmaceutical companies.

Alternative incentives for innovation which fall outside the patent system would draw investment that will serve the needs of populations too poor or too small to provide sufficient market pull to attract research funds, the group said.

This would overcome the systematic problems of above-marginal cost pricing inherent in patent-based innovation.

According to Nobel laureate and UAEM supporter John Sulston, revenue from drug sales, underpinned by strong patent protection, currently pays for both R&D and drug production.

That process, he says, is financially inefficient, with only a sixth of profit going back into R&D, with the result that diseases which don't promise high profits don't attract R&D funding.

Developed countries — particularly those with powerful pharmaceutical companies - are resistant to the proposed changes, and Sulston said the sheer weight of powerful vested interests from the US, the EU and Canada was "frightening".

Harvey Bale, director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, said he was concerned at the suggestion that protection of intellectual property was inconsistent with objectives relating to public health.

An enabling environment for innovative healthcare-related industries was an essential component of any strategy to develop new and effective medicines for neglected diseases, he said.

The Assembly will hold its 61st meeting on May 19.

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