One of the most difficult problems faced by public health agencies worldwide is maintaining protection for pharma companies, so they continue to develop new medicines while finding legal and practical ways to make drugs available to developing countries. At last week’s joint WHO/WIPO/WTO technical symposium on access to medicines, patent information and freedom to operate in Geneva, Dr Margaret Chan appealed to governments, patent attorneys, and pharmacutical companies to help populate global drugs databases to enable developing countries to get the medicines they need to combat the rise in costly diseases that plague their citizens.
The Director-General of the World Health Organization said that developing countries risked being caught in several worrisome trends: the global economic crisis could cause wealthy nations to curtail aid, chronic diseases are rising in the developing world, and modern patent legislation has created barriers while it has improved protection. At risk are millions of lives if public health agencies can’t get expedient access to generic medicines.
First, the 1994 TRIPS agreement eliminated individual countries’ prerogative to not grant patents within their borders if they were WTO members. This removed a safety valve that had enabled reengineering to save on costs when the country did not grant a patent.
Secondly, expensive, chronic diseases are increasing in the developing world. Chan cited cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer, which require long term, comprehensive treatment plans and pharmaceuticals. The answer, she said, was easier access to generic medicines, which was highlighted in the 2010 World Health Report on health system finance.
Immature public health procurement processes too often prevent developing countries from getting the drugs they need legally, according to Chan. A large aspect of the solution is better access to pharmaceutical patent databases. To address this, the WHO launched an online guide on conducting patent searches for medicine last year.
The guide aims to help health officials navigate more easily through a landscape of patent information that is complex, sometimes murky, and often riddled with tricky pitfalls. – Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization