At the World Health Organization meetings, a myriad of special interest groups are aggressively lobbying member states to loosen the definition of counterfeit medicines and to weaken intellectual property protection. Three key strategies are at the heart of the Anti-IP activists tactics o benefit generic and “grey –market” suppliers of drugs.
The first strategy is to weaken the definition of counterfeit drugs. Recently BUKO, one of the organizations that belong to Health Action International, an anti intellectual property and an anti -health industry interest group, released a paper that, among other things, made the claim that “counterfeits may at times have advantages”. http://patientsandpatents.wordpress.com/2008/05/22/resolution-on-counterfeit-medicine/. During the current round of WHO meetings the leaders if knowledge Ecology International and Essential Action are working aggressively to water down the WHO’s definition of counterfeit medicines.
The second strategy is to encourage governments in developing countries to seize intellectual property through compulsory licenses, a mechanism that basically expropriates patent protection. This strategy is popular with some governments that profit from the sick by adding tariffs and mark- ups to drug purchases. However it has also lead to a proliferation of sub standard drug manufacturing to the extent that at least one African country resorted to withdrawing the operating licenses of dozens of generic manufacturers.
The third strategy is to convince the member states of WHO through recommendations of the Intergovernmental Working Group on IP and Public Health (IGWG) that somehow governments in developed countries can redirect precious health resources away from sustaining their own health systems in order to replace the billions of dollars in health research and development that are currently provided by health industries and pharmaceutical companies. A recent article by Helen Disney points out the folly of this approach:
Under Slovenia’s presidency of the EU, the Union has put the achievement of the Lisbon Agenda goals at the core of its activities. The use of market forces and incentives is held up as the most appropriate way to stimulate research and development, with strong intellectual property protection underpinning the innovation system. There thus appears to be a mismatch between the rhetoric being used in Geneva, as a result of the recent discussions of the inter-governmental working group, and the language of Brussels and Ljubljana. The question is: which direction does the EU really wish to choose?
The EU’s innovative performance currently falls well below that of the US and Japan. Europeans simply cannot afford the consequences of compromising the Lisbon Agenda goals for a state-led innovation system that will do little to help those in the developing world.
Indeed, it is the private sector that contributes the bulk of health-related research and development. Private pharmaceutical expenditure on research and development in Europe is estimated at €22.5 billion in 2006, outstripping by far the EU’s annual healthcare budget for the 7th framework programme for research of €850 million. In all likelihood, the private market will continue to be the major driver of research into new treatments, including for diseases that affect the world’s poor – but only if the right incentives exist.
Well-funded special interest groups no doubt attract many people who genuinely share the global concern for access to health in Africa and other developing regions. They also attract those that are well paid to pursue an agenda on behalf of undisclosed governments and corporations who can profit handsomely from the efforts of anti-IP activists.
Among those lobbying most aggressively is Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), an organization who according to public records has had its key employees very well paid by Essential Action, another Anti-IP lobby group.
KEI’s website acknowledges that it supplies “technical” support for governments and “firms” but provides no information on what firms and what governments are the beneficiaries of this “technical” advice or whether it collects fees or other considerations for these services.
The WHO, through IGWG, has an opportunity and a responsibility to develop a global strategy that can save millions of lives in the developing world. But it needs to be wary that this agenda actually improves the potential for medical innovation to meet the global health challenges we face and to ensure that this agenda is not hijacked by special interests who hide behind ideological rhetoric, who lobby for undisclosed firms and governments and who invest significant effort in trying to intimidate patient advocates and others who have a contrary view of how best to improve global health outcomes.