Affordable drugs for poor countries are feasible, WHO/WTO experts say

Affordable drugs for poor countries are feasible, WHO/WTO experts say

Making life-saving medicines more affordable for poor countries is not only a vital precondition for improving public health but also a realistic goal, according to experts who today wrapped up a workshop in Høsbjør, Norway, convened jointly by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The 80 experts from 21 countries attending the workshop shared the view that if certain conditions are met, the practice of "differential pricing" -- charging varying prices in different markets according to purchasing power -- is feasible, provided certain conditions are met.

"Although participants clearly approached the issues from different points of view, there was broad recognition that differential pricing could play an important role in ensuring access to existing drugs at affordable prices, particularly in the poorest countries," said Adrian Otten, Director of WTO's Intellectual Property Division.

WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland said concerns about intellectual property must be balanced with attention to the broader context. "Intellectual property rights stimulate development of new medicines, but must be implemented in an impartial way that safeguards public health," said Dr. Brundtland. "We also need to ensure that there are additional incentives for the development of the drugs needed to address the health problems of people in poor countries."

When drug prices fall there is still no guarantee that poor communities can afford them. In the case of HIV/AIDS, even with costs coming down to $500 per patient per year, the sums required would be well beyond the reach of many countries, according to WHO.

Under those circumstances, significant amounts of external financing would be needed to help poor countries provide treatment. Many workshop participants stressed that financing for drugs should not be considered in isolation, and called for massive funding increases to develop effective healthcare systems in general.

Organized in cooperation with the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and the United States-based Global Health Council, the three-day workshop attracted government representatives from both developed and developing countries, as well as participants from international research firms, generic pharmaceutical companies from Asia, Africa and Latin America, non-governmental organizations, consumer groups, universities and international organizations.