Bush Administration Plays Very Positive Role in UN Debate Over R&D and Access to Medicine

Something very good happened Saturday, at a UN agency, and much of the credit goes to the Bush Administration.
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Something very good happened today, at a UN agency, and much of the credit goes to the Bush Administration.

The World Health Organization's main governing body just approved a resolution that will set in motion an ambitious new effort to stimulate R&D in areas of public health priority, with access to new medical inventions.

This has been a highly controversial topic. Pfizer and other big pharmaceutical companies lobbied very aggressively against any move by the WHO to create global norms for setting R&D priorities, to identify mechanisms for sustainable funding for R&D, or to design R&D mechanisms that don't create barriers for access. The pharmaceutical industry wants US trade negotiators to focus only on measures the raise drug prices.

Public health groups (including my own), scientists, and a number of others have been arguing that we need something else for globalization -- we need treaties or trade agreements that focus on funding R&D, and we need new R&D incentive mechanisms that are not tied to high drug prices.

Until this week, big PhRMA could count on the Bush Administration to block serious global discussions to consider this new paradigm. But the Bush Administration flipped this week, and backed an ambitious and serious effort to create a new global framework to support R&D in areas of priority.

This WHO effort will be crafted by a new intergovernmental committee that will be set up 'immediately," and tasked with an ambitious agenda of identifying global R&D priorities in areas of particular relevance to developing countries, and to develop new mechanisms for sustainable R&D.

The global trade framework will be transformed by this initiative. No longer will countries see trade agreements about intellectual property rights or drug prices as the only mechanism for sustainable funding of R&D, or the only possible outcome of a bilateral or multilateral trade negotiation.

The feeling here today is somewhat magical. No one thought we would have such positive outcome. The Bush Administration had been a big opponent of these proposals for the past three years. The European Commission came here with a position that was literally written by drug company lobbyists. The proposal was also linked to a highly contested and through review of intellectual property rules.

There is much credit to go around, starting with several dedicated public health advocates, most importantly Nicoletta Dentico and Ellen 't Hoen, but also many others from the NGO community, the very effective and dedicated public health leaders from Kenya and Brazil, who set their sights high, and provided the leadership that changed minds everywhere, and scientists Tim Hubbard and Sir John Sulston.

The most negative energy was coming from the European Commission, which started the week as a stenographer for the pharmaceutical industry.

A number of country delegations did a great job, including the Netherlands, Italy, Norway, New Zealand, Switzerland, Thailand and South Africa.

But the best for us was the very positive role played by my own delegation, lead by President HW Bush's godson, Bill Steiger, who is normally a hard liner. Steiger and other US officials had been lobbied on this issue by some public health groups and members of Congress, and in the end, they took the side that will benefit the poor, despite very aggressive lobbying by pharmaceutical industry lobbyists. It was cool.

The US news media has had a news black-out on these negotiations. Maybe if Bill Gates or big pharma PR agents had wanted to call attention to it, it would have been all over the news. But it very important, and very encouraging.

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