Access to Healthcare

WHO Executive Board moves ahead with promising proposal that re-examines health R&D priorities and financing

Geneva - The World Health Organization (WHO) has taken a significant step forward in addressing the priority health needs of millions of people in developing countries, according to a group of NGOs, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Consumer Project on Technology (CPTech), attending the WHO's Executive Board meeting in Geneva last week.

The UN health body's Executive Board has recommended that a resolution proposed by Kenya and Brazil on research and development (R&D) be submitted to the World Health Assembly in May. If passed, it will help speed up the translation of scientific and biomedical progress into effective and affordable drugs, diagnostics and vaccines that respond to the needs of patients, particularly those living in poverty.

"By going forward with the resolution, the WHO Board has shown its commitment to exploring solutions to a problem that leaves millions of people in developing countries without access to treatment", said Ellen 't Hoen, Head of Policy and Advocacy at MSF's Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. "If the May World Health Assembly adopts this resolution, it will help make sure the essential medicines of the future are developed."

The resolution calls on the WHO to examine ways both to prioritise, and to provide sufficient and sustainable funding for health R&D that answers the most urgent global health needs.

The current R&D system is unable to do either of these, as the bulk of investment into medical research is driven by commercial interests into diseases that represent a profitable market for drug companies. Patients in developing countries, often unable to pay for treatment, do not constitute such a market.

Right now there is no system for setting the priorities of health R&D, nor for attracting long-term financial support for the development of treatments that are not commercially viable. The resolution will pave the way for such systems to emerge.

"The WHO has taken the first step toward addressing two major issues, namely what the priorities are for health care research, and who is going to pay for it," said James Love of CPTech. "It has been a painful discussion - wealthy countries often looked as though they wanted to kill the proposal. And we have only come this far because of the leadership shown by several developing countries. But in May, European governments, along with the US, Australia and Japan are going to have to be more positive for something real to come out of this."

The joint Kenyan-Brazilian proposal had attracted substantial support from a large number of Board members, as well as from a cross-party group of members of the European Parliament, and from a 240-strong group of prominent scientists and researchers, who requested the Board adopt the text in an open statement read by Nobel laureate Sir John Sulston.