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Why a Global Research and Development Treaty Will Fail

By Alan Oxley - July 19, 2005 12:00 AM

Few people would argue we shouldn't have a United Nations. This does not however absolve the organization from the obligation to earn respect. The well-paid officials and diplomats who serve UN agencies forget this every now and again when they take on seriously bad ideas that discredit the organization. The latest is that the World Health Organization (WHO) should go into the business of discovering and developing new drugs. No one in their right mind would suggest the UN should manufacture its own cars; why would anyone think it could develop drugs?

Three years ago the WHO committed to an ambitious program to treat an extra three million HIV/AIDS sufferers in the developing world by the end of the year 2005. This was a vastly overambitious idea. Dr. Lee Jong-wook, the Director General of the WHO, freely acknowledges the target won't be met; as of June 2005 only 700,000 people have been treated. The culprit, say AIDS activists is the high cost of HIV/AIDS drugs and the intellectual property law which allows companies to patent drugs and charge royalties if others want to produce them.

Health professionals and the intellectually honest among WHO officials know that the basic obstacle in expanding treatment is that the health systems in developing countries just don't have the capacity to handle it, even if drugs were free. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), on the other hand, want the focus on drug prices to further unrelated social and economic agendas.

Consumers International, Oxfam, Medecins sans Frontieres, and the Third World Network are running what appear to be coordinated campaigns to weaken international intellectual property law. Jamie Love of Consumers International is promoting the idea that the WHO should begin developing drugs (instead of the drug companies) and that the agency adopt a "research and development treaty" to legitimize this. The other NGOs mentioned above strongly support this move.

As if to underline their point that intellectual property law is the chief culprit behind continued illness and disease, a draft treaty being circulated in Geneva would require parties to surrender intellectual property rights pertinent to areas of research being conducted by the UN research company.

The idea of a drug fund is now being "considered" by a special commission set up last year by the WHO to examine the impact of intellectual property on international solutions to solve global health problems. The WHO is wandering a long way away from its core competence. It is akin to asking NATO for advice on international trade.

Fortunately, the NGO proponents of the fund have built into the treaty powerful disincentives for rich countries to support it. The treaty will oblige every party to pay dues to the research company according to how rich they are. In other words, the industrialized world will pay for the fund.

Finance ministries balk at handing over money to UN agencies to spend as they choose. The Iraqi oil-for-food scandal demonstrates why. Imagine UN bureaucrats trying to run something as a high risk as drug development.

Legal entities in most industrialized economies would also be unhappy. The draft treaty obliges surrender of valuable intellectual property rights, not in return for another right, but as a concomitant to the obligation to fund the research program.

If Dr. Lee Jong-wook is serious about improving the capacity of poor countries to deliver healthcare he could propose a "Global Health Facility," modeled on the lines of the Global Environment Facility. It was set up by the World Bank and provides seed funding to be matched by donors, national agencies and private bodies, for projects to improve environmental management capacity in poor countries. Of course, this would appeal less to the NGOs who want to weaken free markets rather than truly find solutions for global health crises.

Alan Oxley is host of the Asia Pacific page of Tech Central Station and for a number years worked as a diplomat on UN affairs.

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