UNSG High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines in Johannesburg

The United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines hosted its final “Global Dialogue” in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 17 March 2016. Campaigners from the Treatment Action Campaign held a large rally outside the conference demanding reform of patent laws. Inside the meeting, hundreds of people from around the world joined online and in-person – from industry, government, civil society groups, multilateral organizations and academia – to discuss new ideas and solutions to increase access to medicines, vaccines and diagnostics and promote innovation in health technologies.

Recognizing the global nature of the challenge, experts from Asia and the Pacific were video conferenced into the meeting from Bangkok to join the solutions-focused meeting which saw lively debate on a range of topics including human rights, patent pools, intellectual property rights, public-private partnerships, and alternative sources for R&D financing. Patient groups were a critical part of the meeting, offering very personal perspectives on the challenges facing the panel.

“I am one of the South African ladies who struggled to get Herceptin for my breast cancer,” said Tobeka Daki, a patient and health activist. “As a result, four months ago, I was diagnosed with bone cancer of the spine, and I am here today asking the panel to please help South Africans get this drug, because chemotherapy alone cannot cure this type of breast cancer.”

The Panel was convened in November 2015 by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to address the policy incoherence between intellectual property laws and access to medicines. Following a call for new ideas and potential solutions, the Panel received 178 contributions from industry, government, civil society groups, multilateral organizations and academia. In the last two weeks, the Panel held two global dialogues - in London and Johannesburg - to allow participants to discuss the tensions between intellectual property laws and access to medicines and propose solutions.

“High prices mean that too many don’t have access to the medicines they need. This means we need another way to pay for R&D, and here’s where the important concept of delinkage is so central,” said Suerie Moon, co-director at the Project on Innovation and Access to Technologies for Sustainable Development at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “Delinkage implies that we need to pay for R&D with public money. We need to demand a fair public return on public investment. This means no monopolies on medicines that are financed with public money. In order to realize this, we need to find a way to work together as a global community so that all governments will contribute fairly to developing R&D costs.”

The Treatment Action Campaign released a statement and a ‘Johannesburg Declaration’ after the meeting. The statement outlined their expectations for the panel: “The UN High-Level Panel offers a unique opportunity to reassess the way society ensures that new medicines are developed and made available to all people who need them. A variety of alternatives and/or changes to the current patent-based innovation system have been proposed. We consider many of these proposals to be feasible and implementable should they be backed up with sufficient political will and commitment.”

Both dialogues saw constructive debates between stakeholders. Trade and industry representatives are part of the High-Level Panel and have been active in the Panel’s various discussions in London and Johannesburg.

“I think the work of the panel is very timely. We need to review the balance between innovation and access. We need to make sure that companies like mine are able to invest in R&D for treatment for tomorrow so that patients who need them get access to those products,” said Jon Pender, Vice President of Government Affairs at GlaxoSmithKline. “We’ve heard a lot about the issues of R&D and patents, but actually for the vast majority of essential medicines that patients need, there is no intellectual property on them at all, there's no copyright, there are no patents.”

Following the two dialogues, the Panel will meet again at the end of the month to discuss the input they’ve received so far and start to develop recommendations for the United Nations Secretary-General. A report, which will include the recommendations from the Panel, will be released in June 2016. As the meeting wrapped up, the co-chair of the High-Level Panel gave key takeaways.

“It is clear that we face a global problem, not just a problem of developing countries,” said Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland and co-chair of the panel. “We have heard from stakeholders about the good practices and experiences that we can build on. But, we cannot forget some of the limitations of these models and the need for new approaches. You can guarantee that we will use all these interventions as food for thought and action.”

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