Innovation & IP to Solve Global Health Challenges WHO
At the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Executive Board (EB) meeting in Geneva this week, member states will establish the global health agenda for 2020. One of these priority agenda items is finding sustainable pathways to implement universal health care (UHC) – a United Nations-backed initiative to ensure affordable access to basic health services. The issue has remained a focus of the WHO because at least half of the world’s population still does not have full coverage of essential health services.
We cannot close the gap in access to care without the public and private sectors working together in a collaborative way — something the WHO itself has recognized in the past. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has repeatedly affirmed the value of public-private collaboration. Despite this recognition, the WHO is considering a proposal that would seriously undermine the role of the private sector in developing new cures and treatments for diseases.
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In 2008, the WHO adopted the Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property (GSPOA). The goal of GSPOA was to strengthen investments and increase research and development (R&D) into diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries. At the time, it included language reflecting consensus on the positive role of intellectual property (IP) in global health. However, the GSPOA draft being considered at this year’s WHO EB proposes policies that would undermine IP rights. These include promoting IP-weakening policies such as unrestricted use of compulsory licensing; when governments permit production of a patented medicine without the consent of the owner.
The driving force of private sector innovation is strong IP rights. These provide companies the incentive to invest billions each year into finding new cures. Europe is a global center for innovation, with some 35 billion euros invested into R&D in 2017 alone. New treatments and cures are always going to be needed, whether it is to contain communicable disease outbreaks like Ebola or the Coronavirus or treat non-communicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes. We want a system that incentivizes companies to invest more into research, not less.
Governments and the WHO cannot achieve UHC alone, especially in low- to middle-income countries. The private sector provides up to 80% of health care in many developing countries so it is impossible to ignore the private sector when seeking to expand health coverage there. When so many people get access to care through the private sector, it only makes sense that the public and private sectors should work together to tackle barriers to health care.
To achieve tangible impact that improve people’s lives, member states at this year’s WHO EB must avoid pointing the finger at IP rights as a barrier to care. Instead, they should explore practical and concrete steps to address barriers to care such as taxes and tariffs, poor infrastructure, expensive and inefficient supply chains, and insufficient public investment in health care.
WHO EB member states have an opportunity to make real progress on global health goals by further committing themselves to public-private collaboration. Universal health care cannot be accomplished without the private sector.
WHO: Innovation & IP to Solve Global Health Challenges