U.N. health agency launches pharmaceutical review

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UN GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization launched on Monday its first intergovernmental review of the pharmaceutical sector to try to find ways of making medicine more easily available to the world's poorest people.

In their five-day talks, the World Health Organization's 193 member countries are expected to look at how international patents limit access by keeping drug prices high, and to highlight areas now lacking investment, such as tropical and parasitic diseases.

A WHO commissioned report earlier this year drawn up by former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss slammed the existing drug development, marketing and pricing system.

The issue is highly sensitive for developing countries that say patent protections make life-saving medicines inaccessible.

Few expect the WHO members to recommend big changes to the intellectual property system, which the pharmaceutical industry says is crucial for drug innovation.

But they are nonetheless expected to lay down an action plan in a report due to be completed by 2008.

Ellen t' Hoen of the Medicins Sans Frontieres campaign for access to essential medicines said the Geneva talks should clearly identify current public health needs and priority areas for research and development.

She said epidemics such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis would not be stopped without new drugs and better diagnostic tests, and expanded generic drug manufacturing and distribution.

"There is not a global plan today saying what is needed in HIV/AIDS, and the same is true of tuberculosis," t' Hoen said.

"The WHO for years has pushed the idea that we can stop tuberculosis with the tools that we have, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not possible ... These are the kinds of problems that really need an international approach."

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said the WHO needs to clarify its goals in intellectual property, and better define which ailments are considered neglected diseases requiring more investment.

"Let's narrow the scope in a way so we know what we are talking about," Eric Noehrenberg, IFPMA's director for international trade and market issues, told reporters last week.

Noehrenberg said public-private partnerships had helped to attract investment to once-overlooked diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness and river blindness. Incentives for companies to develop medicines for diseases with small markets - such as advance drug purchase commitments -- could also help, he said.

© Reuters 2006