WHO participates in Social Forum on Access to Medicines, February 2015

The WHO Advocacy project participated in the Social Forum organized by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Right to Health and access to medicines, February 18-20, 2015, in Geneva, Switzerland.  The Forum, a multi-stakeholder event which reports to the UN Human Rights Council, was chaired by H.E. Mr. Faisal Bin Abdulla al-Henzab of the Permanent Mission of Qatar, who remarked, “No one should be denied needed medicines because they lack money.”

Dr. Mahmoud Daher, head of the WHO office in Gaza, gave a presentation on shortages of essential medicines in the Gaza Strip and its impact on patient health in the Forum’s session on “Health delivery in challenging contexts.”  From 25% to 30% of essential medicines are currently at zero stock in the occupied Palestinian territory.

The predominant issue addressed by meeting participants was the increasing unaffordability of medicines following the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Due in part to a narrow reading of TRIPS by global pharmaceutical producers,  IP protection allows long patents on medicines which eliminates competition, especially from generic producers, and keeps medicine prices high.

Broadly, the developed countries where pharmaceutical producers are located claim that IP rights are needed to promote innovation and research for the public benefit. Human rights experts and developing countries argue that the right to health and access to medicines, and the right of all to benefit from scientific progress and its applications are part of international human rights law and supersede intellectual property rights.

A 2001 WTO declaration at Doha stressed that TRIPS should not hinder the goal of promoting access to medicines for all and that “TRIPS flexibilities” should be used by developing countries to circumvent patents for the benefit of public health, such as compulsory licenses for specific medicines. While campaigns for greater access to anti-retrovirals for HIV therapy have met with some success, strong barriers still exist for other patent drugs, especially chemotherapies.

With even low cost medications are unaffordable for many of the world’s poor, health system strengthening, financing access to essential medicines and universal health coverage options were also discussed in the context of right to health. More than 40 speakers made formal presentations and several hundred comments by the meeting participants were made from the floor from governments, UN agencies, national and international NGOs, foundations and academia from around the world, as well as several pharmaceutical representatives.