WHO Assembly to face controversies

The most controversial debates at the 59th World Health Assembly will involve the question of intellectual property rights (IPRs) and health, and Taiwan’s request to participate as an observer.

During its May 22-27 session, the Assembly — the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) decision-making body — will discuss questions like the eradication of poliomyelitis, the destruction of smallpox virus stocks, the spread of avian flu and the international migration of health personnel.

Denis Aitken, adviser to WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook, acknowledged the difficulty presented by the debate on IPRs and health, an issue that has been the focus in recent months of a report commissioned by the WHO, and of a proposal set forth by the governments of Brazil and Kenya. The report by the Commission on IPR, Innovation and Public Health recommended that governments avoid any stipulation in bilateral free trade trea-ties that could reduce access to medicines on the part of developing countries.

The 59th Assembly of health ministers from WHO’s 192 member states will discuss the Commission’s recommendations as well as the proposal drafted by Brazil and Kenya, which suggests the creation of a working group to study the establishment of a global framework for supporting R&D on medicines consistent with public interest needs. The proposal calls for the new working group to propose to the WHO the adoption of IPR protection systems that would increase access by developing countries to health innovations and medicines.

“You would expect that the WHO would be the organisation that would be the leader in this field,” said Rowan Gillies, president of the International Council of Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF). But “today that’s not the case.” For that reason, the MSF and other international humanitarian organisations launched the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative that includes public sector institutions. The initiative is similar to the movement led by Brazil and South Africa in the 1990s in favour of the primacy of health over trade.

MSF and other independent humanitarian organisations like Oxfam and Focus on the Global South joined that effort, which achieved the adoption of the Declaration on the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and Public Health at the November 2001 WTO ministerial conference in Doha. The document, considered an important step forward in the campaign for affordable medicines, affirmed the primacy of public health over IPRs, and the rights of governments to make full use of the public health safeguards in TRIPS. Meanwhile, the international pharmaceutical industry continues to do good business in the industrialised world. The global market for pharmaceutical products grew seven per cent in 2005, to $602 billion.

Another touchy issue, Taiwan’s request for observer status in the Assembly, is unlikely to see any change from previous years, when it was turned down. A resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1971 recognised only China as a member of the world body, thus expelling Taiwan. Since then, Taiwan’s petitions have failed to prosper. Only 25 countries recognise Taiwan as an independent state. The remaining 147 members of the global health body only recognise China. — IPS