Civil society and humanitarian groups slammed the new head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), on the sidelines of a meeting in Bangkok, 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 said at a press conference, last 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 DC-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 last 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 licensing’ to secure cheaper generic drugs. “I’d like to underline that we have to find a right balance for compulsory licensing. 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 last Friday’s Bangkok Post.

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.

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 the trade related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) flexibility to get cheaper drugs,” he said.

The tendency of the World Health Organisation to cave in to 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.” — IPS