Access to medicines explored at World Health Assembly 71

At this year’s World Health Assembly, after more than a decade of debate and consensus building, two prominent access to medicines items were on the agenda to be moved forward. STOPAIDS were pleased that both 11.5 Addressing the Global Shortage of, and access to, medicines and vaccines and 11.6 Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property (GSPOA) were passed by Member States with little push back. This means that work to create a new roadmap on access to medicines can begin so it presented next year, and that (most of the) Global Strategy recommendations can be taken forward by Member States and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Non-state actors in official relations with the WHO are able to give short statements during the Assembly to share their positions on the issues being discussed. The Missing Medicines campaign ally Medicines Sans Frontiers made a powerful intervention when 11.5 was being discussed to raise the following priority action areas needed to develop a bold roadmap that ensures patient centred innovation:

  • Promote alternative research and development (R&D) approaches and actively pursue an R&D agenda that is driven by health needs, fosters sustainable innovation and access, ends reliance on high prices and monopolies to finance R&D, and addresses innovation and access concerns for all diseases, all health technologies and all countries.
  • Address Intellectual Property (IP) barriers to access to medicines and vaccines by strengthening WHO’s leadership role and the technical assistance it provides Member States working to address IP barriers and to effectively adopt and use public health safeguards in IP laws and policies.
  • Strengthen WHO’s mandate to improve data, cost and price transparency across all aspects of R&D, manufacturing and marketing in order to improve access to affordable treatments.
  • Provide the additional, sustained resources required for WHO to support and strengthen the quality assurance of safe, effective medicines that meet public health needs – specifically through additional investment in the WHO Prequalification Programme.
  • Ensure effective policy coherence between the roadmap and WHO and United Nations (UN) health programmes promote leadership and accountability among UN agencies to safeguard public health, and fund the development of a roadmap that builds on the GSPOA and the recommendations of the UN High Level Panel on Access to Medicines.

The discussion of what needs to be included in the Roadmap wasn’t limited to just to the Palais des Nations but also took place at satellite events held alongside the Assembly. One event co-hosted by Knowledge Economy International and Health Action International (IP Watch article on the event here) reminded the audience that access to medicines is one of, if not the most controversial area in the global health space and that whilst getting 11.5 passed is a sign of progress, it is only really the beginning of the journey to ensure the roadmap leads to change. STOPAIDS and our Missing Medicines campaign partners will be eagerly awaiting the public consultation on the Roadmap to make sure its building on the recommendations of the High Level Panel on Access to Medicines and, as mentioned above, driving us towards patient centred innovation.

One of the speakers at the event was Dr Mariângela Batista Galvão Simão, Assistant Director General, Drug Access, Vaccines and Pharmaceuticals at the WHO who was able to bring the perspective of Dr Tedros, the new Executive Director of WHO to the discussion. She shared his vision that no one should die because they don’t have access to medicines and reminded the audience that the success of the roadmap will be integral to bringing about universal health coverage.

Dr Mariângela also took the time to meet with around 20 civil society members on the fringes of the assembly. The meeting was in response to a letter sent from civil society to the World Trade Organisation, World Intellectual Property Organisation and the WHO on the pressures facing countries use of TRIPS flexibilities.

STOPAIDS and Missing Medicine campaign allies have been running a campaign this year directed towards pharmaceutical company Norvartis on this very issue; the ability of countries to use their legal right to issue a Compulsory License for a medicine as enshrined in the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and affirmed in the Doha Declaration. Whilst in Geneva representatives from STOPAIDS, Mission Salude and Universities Allied for Essential Medicines met with Novartis to hand in the petition which had gathered nearly 15,000 signatures asking the Chairman of Novartis Board of Directors to ensure that the new Chief Executive Officer does not repeat his predecessor’s tactics of threatening and bullying countries from using their legal right to decrease the price of medicines.

STOPAIDS regards issues including transparency, delinkage, public return on public investment and patient-centred innovation to be critical to the access to medicines debate and was pleased see so much attention given both within the confines of the Assembly walls and outside of them to the discussion of how to we advance progress.

We’ll be working with our allies and members over the coming year at key moments including the two upcoming High Level Meetings on tuberculosis and non-communicable diseases and at other opportunities such as the roadmap consultation which we expect to see in October when we’ll coordinate member’s inputs. If you’d like to know more about joining the Missing Medicines coalition which has monthly convening calls please get in touch. 

Jenny Vaughan, STOPAIDS Advocacy Officer