UN access to medicines panel seeks to reconcile business of health with right to health

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A United Nations panel’s report released last week examining barriers between medicines and the people who need them traces the divergence of two paths over the previous century: one towards a recognition of human rights to health, and the other toward industries’ rights to profit from their innovations.

The results of those divergent paths, the report says, are barriers to biomedical research and development as well as to access to their outputs, that affect all countries, foster inequities, hinder public health preparedness, and enhance the threats posed by infections resistant to existing medicines.

A diverse group representing a span of nations and interests including economics, international law, civil society and pharmaceutical development, the panel set out on a nearly year-long quest for a common path toward the development of needed health solutions, and access to them.

They highlighted the impacts of international agreements, and national policies, including the U.S. Bayh Dole Act which in 1980 opened the way for publicly funded discoveries to become privately held profit-making products, the 1994 World Trade Organization agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, which set international precedents for prioritizing protection of intellectual property, and free trade agreements which reinforced those protections, further linking the costs of developing medicines to the costs of accessing them.

Through consensus, the panel wrote, they came to recommendations to increase access to information on how medicines are developed, decrease opportunities to secure or extend patents where innovation hasn’t taken place, and strengthen the abilities of governments and civil society to monitor issues of access, affordability, and to protect public health.

Commentaries at the end of the report, which can be read in full here, underscore how the two paths, toward industry protection and public health protection, diverge, but also the challenges to bringing them together.

“We as a panel could have and should have been bolder,” wrote former UNITAID Director Jorge Bermudez and OXFAM International Director Winnie Biyanyima, citing the witnessed and reported human tolls of medicine access barriers. In their commentary, they call for another look at intellectual property issues that recognizes the inherent conflict between them, and for products on the World Health Organization and national lists of essential medicines to be exempt from patents.

At the same time, Sir Andrew Witty of GSK, the one representative of the innovating pharmaceutical industry wrote, “the huge achievements of the current system of healthcare innovation are often ignored, or taken for granted.

So, wrote, Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV Director Shiba Phurailatpam, “The convening of the [panel] is yet another effort to be tenacious in seeking to reconcile great scientific promise and achievement with obdurate political will in support of human development. To this end, the most collective work still lies ahead.

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