Francis Gurry led WIPO as Director General from October 1, 2008 to September 30, 2020.

WIPO, WHO, WTO Heads Discuss Innovation, IP, Access to Medicine

October 29, 2015

The Directors General of WIPO, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) opened a symposium on innovation and access to medicine, calling for a balance that ensures access to vital treatments for the neediest people while ensuring that incentive structures promote development of new medical products.

WIPO Director General Francis Gurry, WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdo and Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO, launched the proceedings on Wednesday, October 28, 2015 at WTO headquarters in Geneva.

Participants at the one-day meeting considered a range of topics related to intellectual property, public health and access to medicine – which the agency heads agreed needed a robust international systems that balance the interests of both medical producers and consumers, particularly those living in poorer nations.

Directors General of WIPO, WTO and WHO Open Symposium (Photo: WIPO).

“From the point of view of intellectual property, of course a tension exists – and it is a tension that exists around access,” said Mr. Gurry. “On the one hand, what intellectual property does economically is make access a salable commodity, and that is the basis of markets in technology and creative works. But on the other hand, access as a salable commodity… raises questions about the cost and possibility of access.”

“To some extent,” Mr. Gurry added, “I think this tension between the two is constant and the only means of resolving it really is balance between the two: A balance between, on the one hand, encouraging investment in research and development and in innovation, which requires some control over access to facilitate markets and to ensure the existence of economic incentives; and, on the other hand, sharing the social benefit of innovation, to improve the quality of life.”.

Citing the recently adopted UN Sustainable Development Goals, including targets to support the development of and access to vaccines and medicines primarily affecting developing countries, Mr. Azevêdo said: “This is clearly a priority for the WTO and I am sure it will be for the others as well.”

“Trade and the multilateral trading system can help in creating a more favorable global environment for public health policies and implementation of more balanced and effective intellectual property system,” he said.

“The work of the WTO touches the issue of public health in many ways. The world is more connected than ever before and this is no different for trade in medicines and related technologies,” he said, adding that worldwide imports of pharmaceutical products exceed half a trillion dollars each year.

“Impediments to trade, whether from uncoordinated customs processes or high trading costs, can be more than just an economic burden. They can be a drag on public health, delaying access to these goods, to these treatments, and adding to the costs of goods and treatments. So this is a very serious issue and one that does clearly deserve our attention,” he said.

The meeting was the latest in a series of cooperative efforts among WHO, WIPO, WTO on public health, IP and trade. The three organizations meet regularly, exchange information on their respective work programs and discuss and plan, within the possibilities of their respective mandates and budgets, common activities. The trilateral cooperation is intended to contribute to enhancing the empirical and factual information basis for policy makers and supporting them in addressing public health in relation to intellectual property and trade.

Ms. Chan said the use of the intellectual property system must convey advantages to both producers and consumers of medicines, treatments and other procedures.

“Innovations that result in better medicines, vaccines and other medical products represent great potential benefits for health - but to realize these benefits we must ensure access for those in greatest need,” she said.

“The purpose of patents is not just to allow the patent holders to obtain economic returns from the grant of market exclusivity. That’s important, but there are other dimensions as well. Patents promote technological innovation and they should also contribute to the dissemination of technology and to the mutual advantage of producers and users alike,” she said.

“The private sector must make profit, there is no other way out. They are not charities,” she said, but noted that the considerations of users must also be taken into account: “We need to find the right balance.”