WHO Chief's Stand on Generic Drugs Slammed

Marwaan Macan-Markar

04 February 2007
BANGKOK, Feb 2 (IPS) - Civil society and humanitarian groups slammed the new head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), on the sidelines of a meeting here, after she appeared to favour the interests of pharmaceutical giants over the plight of the sick and the poor in the developing world.

''It is not the role of the WHO to protect the interests of the pharmaceutical companies,'' Dr. Ellen Hoen of the international humanitarian agency Doctors Without Borders (or MSF for Medecins Sans Frontieres) said at a press conference, Friday. ''It is a reason for concern that the WHO takes a more conservative role than the WTO (World Trade Organisation).''
‘'The new DG (director general) of the WHO should have stood up for the poor,'' added James Love, head of Knowledge Ecology International, a Washington D.C.-based group lobbying for cheaper generic drugs. ‘'This is a bad start. She needs to educate herself about intellectual property rights.''
A Thai AIDS rights activist was as critical. ‘'The WHO has to look more closely at its role in the global public health campaign. It must be able to stand up to the threats of big pharmaceutical companies,'' said Nimit Tienudom, director of AIDS Access Foundation, a Bangkok-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) campaign for cheaper anti-AIDS drugs.
The rebukes were in response to comments made Thursday by Dr. Margaret Chan who was appointed to head the global health agency in November last year. On two occasions, say her critics, she failed to express her support for developing countries fighting for cheaper alternatives to expensive branded drugs. What she eventually said should embolden the pharmaceutical industry, they add.
The most troubling for champions of cheaper alternative drugs were the comments made by Chan when she visited Thailand's National Health Security Office (NHSO), where she cautioned against hasty embrace of countries resorting to ‘compulsory licencing' to secure cheaper generic drugs.
‘'I'd like to underline that we have to find a right balance for compulsory licencing. We can't be naïve about this. There is no perfect solution for accessing drugs in both quality and quantity,'' Chan is quoted as having said at the NHSO, according to Friday's ‘Bangkok Post' newspaper.
Earlier in the day, Chan praised the pharmaceutical industry lavishly during a keynote address delivered at the opening of a two-day international conference that focused on ways to improve access to essential health technologies for neglected diseases. The event, hosted by a local university, attracted over 300 participants from the developing and developed world.
The stance taken by Chan comes at a pivotal moment in Thailand's quest to provide cheaper generic drugs to the country's poor. On Monday, the military-appointed government gave the nod to issue compulsory licences to secure two drugs, one for HIV/AIDS, and the other for heart disease. That move triggered a round of protest from the pharmaceutical industry and from sections of the international media more sympathetic to corporate financial agendas.
This was the third drug in as many months that Bangkok had felt a need to break the patent held by a pharmaceutical company by issuing a compulsory licence, which is a provision recognised at a WTO ministerial meeting in 2001. Under this option that is part of the trade related intellectual property rights (TRIPS), countries can issue a compulsory licence to secure cheaper generic drugs to meet a public health emergency.
Thai AIDS and public health activists had been hoping that Chan's presence in Bangkok would boost the government's move to supply cheaper drugs for the country's 80,000 people with HIV who need anti-AIDS medication out of over 600,000 who have the killer disease.
Chan's comments have broader implications, too, since they come at a time when the Geneva-based health agency is under increasing scrutiny by NGOs and public health advocates. The latter fear that the WHO is selling out to the pharmaceutical industry given the pressure imposed on it by the U.S. government.
Few events illustrate this climate better than the way William Aldis, the WHO representative in Thailand, was forced to quit his Bangkok mission after writing a commentary in the ‘Bangkok Post' newspaper in January 2006, where he supported Thailand's move to secure alternatives to expensive brand-name drugs.
It was an event not lost on U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott. In a speech to the House of Representatives in June 2006, McDermott drew attention to the U.S. government's role in Aldis' removal, saying, ‘'They put him elsewhere à in a position where he would have no power similar to what he had before.''
Washington also took the WHO to task last year for co-sponsoring a publication that was critical of U.S. trade polices. The study looked at the options available for developing countries to use the flexibility available under the TRIPS agreement to gain access to cheaper medicines.
‘'(This publication) spuriously characterises the trade policy of the United States as a threat to public health, and makes unnecessarily inflammatory and prejudicial recommendations as to how the United States can improve its trade policies,'' wrote William Steiger, a senior official at the U.S. department of health and human services, in an August 2006 letter to the acting director general of the WHO.
What troubles civil society campaigners like Martin Khor, director of Third World Network, a Penang-based think tank, is the reluctance of the WHO to defend its position. ‘'It is not normal for the WHO to be silent on this issue of developing countries using TRIPS flexibility to get cheaper drugs,'' he told IPS.
The current tendency of the WHO to cave into such pressure goes against the past record of the organisation as a leading advocate for developing countries to tap the special provisions in TRIPS, he added. ‘'The WHO should be encouraging countries to fully exploit TRIPS flexibility for the benefit of public health.''
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Marwaan Macan-Markar