May 27, 2006

WHO to see if patent system keeps drugs from poor

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization said on
Saturday it would examine whether the international drug patent
system prevents developing countries from obtaining needed
medicines, vaccines and diagnostic tests.

Spurred on by Brazil and Kenya, the 192 WHO members agreed
at an annual meeting in Geneva to launch an intergovernmental
group to look for gaps in medical research and development, and
draw up a global strategy to ensure the health needs of poor
people are met.

The WHO said the group would integrate the findings of an
April report by former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, which
criticized the existing drug development, marketing and pricing
system, saying it largely neglected the poor.

The report, commissioned by the WHO in 2003, did not call
for a weakening of patent rights but urged big companies to
reduce the price of medicines sold to developing countries and
to avoid filing for patent protection there.

The WHO said the new group, open to all interested
countries, would pay particular attention to whether research
investment matched health needs, including diseases common to
poor countries such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

Ellen 't Hoen of the Medicins Sans Frontieres campaign for
access to essential medicines described the WHO announcement as
a "breakthrough agreement" which she said could lead to better
access to drugs for millions of people.

"The current system that is based on patents and high drug
prices as the way to finance research and development leaves
huge health needs unmet, particularly in developing countries,"
she said.

The push toward needs-driven health research "will ensure
that patients' needs -- and not simply profits -- drive medical
innovation," she added.