GENEVA (Reuters) - Pharmaceutical firms need incentives, including lucrative patents, to keep creating drugs and vaccines against emergent threats such as the H1N1 influenza pandemic, the World Health Organization’s head said on Tuesday.
“Progress in public health depends on innovation. Some of the greatest strides forward for health have followed the development and introduction of new medicines and vaccines,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said.
Chan, who last month declared a full pandemic underway from the H1N1 virus, said that patents can help ensure that companies develop medicines to “stay ahead of the development of drug resistance” in diseases like malaria and tuberculosis.
The discovery of isolated H1N1 infections that resist the anti-viral Tamiflu, made by Roche and Gilead, and the global scramble to secure flu vaccines have shown the importance of robust research and development, Chan said.
“Innovation is needed to keep pace with the emergence of new diseases, including pandemic influenza caused by the new H1N1 virus,” she told a meeting on intellectual property and health, a contentious issue that has divided rich and poor nations.
In the speech, Chan said most drug access problems faced by developing countries could be remedied by tinkering with the existing patent system, which “operates as a stimulus for research and development for new products.”
In May, at the WHO’s annual assembly, rich and poor nations failed to reach consensus on how they should share virus samples of H1N1 and other flu strains with companies that use the biological material to make vaccines.
Indonesia has been especially vocal against this, arguing that developing countries would not be able to afford patented jabs made from their specimens.
Chan said those talks on “one of the most difficult, and divisive, issues ever negotiated by WHO” had identified problems with patents but said that the existing intellectual property regime did not need to be fully dismantled in pursuit of equity.
“R&D can indeed be needs-driven as well as profit driven,” the former Hong Kong health director said. “International agreements that govern the global trading system can indeed be shaped in ways that favor health needs of the poor.”
Chan described the global vaccine making capacity as “finite and woefully inadequate for a world of 6.8 billion people, nearly all of whom are susceptible to infection by this entirely new and highly contagious virus.”
While acknowledging that “the lion’s share of these limited vaccines will go to wealthy countries,” she said the shortfall was “the result of limited global manufacturing capacity. It is not, in essence, a result of intellectual property issues.”
The WHO has recommended that health workers, pregnant women and children should get priority access to H1N1 vaccines, and noted that every country worldwide will need them.
Chan said the ideal H1N1 shot would protect against seasonal strains as well as a range of candidate pandemic viruses.
“This innovation has not come about yet,” she said. “This would be the best and most rational insurance policy for increasing supplies and encouraging more equitable access.”
Top flu vaccine makers include Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis, Baxter, Schering Plough’s Nobilon, GlaxoSmithKline, Solvay and AstraZeneca’s MedImmune.
Editing by Dominic Evans