WHO to prompt R&D for poorer countries

The World Health Organisation is to start talks on a global plan of action for research on priority health needs in developing countries. The WHO will hope to encourage development of medicines neglected by private industry.

The WHO’s 192 member states approved a consensus resolution on Saturday establishing an intergovernmental working party to come up with a strategy and action plan within two years.

Calling the move a “breakthrough”, Médecins Sans Frontières, the medical humanitarian group, said it would ensure that patients’ needs rather than profits drove innovation.

The WHO accord followed what health officials called a “miraculous” change of tack by the US, which had previously indicated strong opposition to any steps that might imply a weakening or sidestepping of the drug patenting system.

In return, developing countries led by Brazil and Kenya dropped demands for a binding research and development framework and explicit support for “open access” and other models of promoting health research outside the patent system.

The global strategy will implement the recommendations of a report to the WHO last month by an independent commission. That report said the current intellectual property regime did not provide effective incentives for companies to develop treatments for patients in countries where there was little prospect of making a profit. But it stopped short of calling for fundamental reform.

An article this month in medical journal The Lancet said only 21 – 1.3 per cent – of nearly 1,560 drugs developed over the past 30 years were for neglected tropical diseases and tuberculosis, which account for 12 per cent of the global disease burden.

■ WHO members failed to agree on setting a new date for destroying the remaining known stockpiles of the smallpox virus, nearly 30 years after a worldwide vaccination campaign eradicated the deadly disease.

A previous 2002 deadline was waived by the WHO to allow more time for research on new vaccines and treatments to combat the virus after the 2001 attacks on the US and the anthrax scare there raised fears that smallpox could be used as a weapon by terrorists.

The US and Russia, which hold the only declared stockpiles in two high-security laboratories, oppose early destruction, saying more research is needed. But others say preserving the stocks poses a greater risk, since release could kill millions.

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