NGOs zero in on non-transparent WHO/Corporate links

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 17 May 2001 - - Tiered or differential pricing between rich and poor markets may make a contribution, under certain conditions, for availability of medicines at accessible prices, but should not be seen as an alternative to generic competition or reform of the WTO’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Agreement, a representative of Oxfam told an NGO seminar/briefing session here on the occasion of the 54th World Health Assembly.

The seminar and briefing session on Public/Private partnerships found several NGO activists in the health area very critical of the current trends and lack of transparency and accountability on such growing relationships. Several participants voiced concern that such relationships were against public interest.

Experts for the Health Action International and Oxfam said that the NGOs were not against cooperation with the private sector, but were concerned that this was taking place without transparency and accountability, and raised several issues of conflicts of interest, particularly because of the way the private sector was seconding consultants and experts to work at the secretariat of the WHO.

Some of the participants said that the decision of the Executive Board in January to set up an electronic working group to look at the WHO secretariat’s guidelines on working with the private sector and conflict of interest questions had not so far made any progress, and some recent meetings within the secretariat to look at the guidelines and the comments received on them had been cancelled, with no new dates set.

Oxfam said at the seminar that a tiered pricing system should incorporate as its features:

·        no restrictions on country eligibility,

·        transparent criteria for agreeing on prices,

·        internationally sanctioned governance,

·        tenders for supply of drugs negotiated on a regional basis, and not on the basis of individual companies, countries or drugs,

·        a simply formula whereby prices are banded to meet the financial realities and health status of poor countries,

·        compliance with national and global policies on health and drugs,

·        sustainability, and

·        recognition of need for flexible intellectual property rights such as compulsory financing.

Several NGO speakers at the seminar underscored that the prices offered by the pharmaceutical companies, as a response to the public pressures and NGO campaigns, were still way above the prices at which the generic drugs were available.

The prices offered have come down as a response to the competition from generic drugs, but this generic competition may soon come to an end in the light of the provisions of TRIPS, and the need of countries like India and Brazil to comply with the TRIPs monopoly standards, other speakers noted.

Other participants said that the conditions set by the manufacturers, including in relation to individual products, and the products being put on a separate registry in sales or supply outlets, in effect treating some of these medicines and drugs as ‘controlled substances’, made it more problematic.

Tiered pricing and concessionary pricing schemes should not be seen as an alternative to local production and should not divert attention from the need to review the impact of the TRIPs Agreement on competition in the poor countries.

At the NGO seminar, speakers spoke of the difficulties of obtaining information on actual costs, and the cost structures, to enable the establishment of retail sales prices.

An HAI coordinated project, the WHO-NGO Roundtable said it will collect, according to a new standardised methodology, data on drug prices and pricing information in middle- and low-income countries.

The Health Assembly, they said should affirm the primacy of public health concerns over trade rules, and should not circumscribe the ability of countries to adopt health policies and make drugs available at affordable prices, by references to ‘according to international trade agreements’.

Other speakers underscored that apart from focussing on the issue at the Health Assembly, civil society groups had to focus on the WTO and the TRIPS agreement, which by establishing a global monopoly, has tilted the balance. The issue had been brought on the agenda of the TRIPS council by the African countries, and supported by others, and was due for a special discussion at the TRIPS Council meeting in June.

Civil Society groups should not be fooled by the talk of the EU or US and others with a transnational pharmaceutical industry that the issues could be addressed in a new round of trade negotiations.

The world poor nations and sick among them could not afford to wait for the outcomes of new negotiations. It was necessary to set out between now and the Doha ministerial level, a clear view of the ‘flexibility’ for compulsory licensing allowed under the TRIPs, and provide an authoritative interpretation or changes in rules to extend the scope for such licensing and local production.

There should also be a moratorium at the WTO on disputes being raised on issues relating to the TRIPS, pharmaceuticals and compulsory licensing and other related questions.

Meanwhile, the Health GAP coalition, a US-based NGO group came out in denunciation of the Bush administration’s policy stance at the Health Assembly, and accused the administration of working to undercut support for life saving AIDS medication and related goods and materials. The administration was also accused of blocking efforts to revise the antiquated ‘Essential Drugs’ list of the WHO, and refusing to talk at the WHO of accepted methods (like use of condoms for safe sex) to prevent .spread of AIDS. – SUNS4899

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