Lifting barrier to public's access to medicines

Next week in Geneva, the World Health Organization (WHO) is holding its annual Executive Board Meeting. The meeting sets the agenda and proposed resolutions for its World Health Assembly in May, when the world’s health ministers gather to debate global health issues and set future policies. One of the many items on the agenda is the “Global strategy and plan of action on public health, innovation and intellectual property”. It is unlikely that we will see innovative thinking from a Board that continues to presume patents are a major barrier to access to medicines and thus a major obstacle to health and development.

The WHO does important and much needed work tackling preventable and communicable diseases, particularly those diseases that are transnational. But it also devotes millions of dollars towards controversial issues such as obesity and intellectual property rights that really should be dealt with by sovereign governments. Perhaps captured by political interests, rather than public health interests, it has continued to rail against pharmaceutical companies that rely on drug patents to recoup costs and earn a return on their investments into the latest medical discoveries.

A document on the WHO Board’s agenda states, “The WHO Secretariat, in collaboration with other international organizations working in intellectual property, to advocate for the development of national legislation to fully reflect the flexibilities provided in the TRIPS Agreement, including those recognized in the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health…”. In simple terms, the WHO, along with other international organizations, are advocating that sovereign nations should weaken their intellectual property rights protections because they presume that they are a major barrier to access to medicines.

In South Africa, we have become all too accustomed to the mantra that when the WHO “recommends” actions, member states are obliged to follow through. However, it must be noted that the WHO and other “international organizations” working in intellectual property comprise unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats who cannot dictate to sovereign nations matters of policy. Instead of undermining the policy that has created the incentives to bring innovative products to market, the WHO should shift its focus back to its core competency and strengths, namely, helping countries control and prevent the spread of illnesses, like it did during the Ebola outbreak.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), “Intellectual property rights are like any other property right. They allow creators, or owners, of patents, trademarks or copyrighted works to benefit from their own work or investment in a creation. These rights are outlined in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides for the right to benefit from the protection of moral and material interests resulting from authorship of scientific, literary or artistic productions”.

There are several compelling reasons to promote and protect intellectual property. Chiefly, without the incentives to bring new innovative products to market – that we know are helping people to live longer, healthier and happier lives all across the globe – innovators will simply not create and they certainly will not invest in commercialising and bringing products to market if they can freely be stolen and copied. For South Africa to move up the value chain from a predominantly resource-based economy to one based on knowledge and innovation, the promotion and protection of intellectual property rights is of critical importance. Without new investment, South Africa’s economic growth will continue to languish and no new jobs and industries will be created. In short, the recent gains in quality of life that South Africans have enjoyed are at risk of being eroded and could reverse.

The public ought to be focusing its attention on the real barriers that hamper access to medicines and pressuring governments to improve regulatory environments. For example, in South Africa, bureaucratic bungling and an inefficient drug registration system unnecessarily delay the entry of drugs (both generic and originator) into the South African market, sometimes by up to five years. Drug prices set by government pricing committees that are fixed for protracted periods fail to accommodate subtle nuances in the market that include, but are not limited to, a wildly fluctuating local currency. The South African government continues to charge VAT on pharmaceutical drugs even though taxing the sickest and most vulnerable members of society is clearly counter-intuitive.

These are some, but certainly not all, of the obstacles that result in shortages and hamper access to medicines in South Africa. If enough pressure is exerted by the public and through the media, these government-created obstacles could be removed with one stroke of the statutory pen.

Author Jasson Urbach is a director of the Free Market Foundation and head of its Health Policy Unit.

This article was first published in The Star on 18 January 2018

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