Access to medicines and international trade rules

September 28, 2016


Recently, the report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access To Medicines was published. Entitled ‘Promoting innovation & access to health technologies’, this report focuses on the discrepancies between international trade agreements such as the patent system, and international human rights law, which includes the right to health. In an Editorial in the Lancet, the editors praise the High-Level Panel for its strong focus on the use of human rights as the basis of policies on access to medicines. 

The Panel was convened by the UN Secretary-General in November 2015. One of its explicit goals was to ‘solicit and assess proposals, based on objective criteria, for solutions which remedy the policy incoherence between international trade rules and international human rights law.’ 

Editorial (full text)

Last week, the much anticipated report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access To Medicines, Promoting innovation & access to health technologies, was published. The independent panel sought recommendations to solve the disjunction between trade and the patent system with fulfilment of the right to health. This misalignment continues to be a barrier to affordable access to essential medicines. The report’s strong focus on the use of human rights as the basis of policies and on access to medicines in all countries is to be commended; as is the open documentation of statements of disagreement among the panel, or that some recommendations were not bold enough. Important were the renewed calls for an international R&D convention and more public financing for R&D.

Concrete approaches to improve transparency, good governance, and accountability were all emphasised, including punitive action against parties that pressure countries that use TRIPS flexibilities. The report was opposed by the US Government and the pharmaceutical industry whose attempts to dilute the report’s recommendations and block its release have been widely reported. These tensions are not new. The existing intellectual property (IP) system serves these parties well where public health and human rights considerations are often omitted in pricing decisions and access to medical products and technologies. It is a pity no consensus was reached among panellists on renegotiating TRIPS and a new IP regime.

Nevertheless, the panel’s recommendations are an important first step and it will be imperative for Ban Ki-moon to endorse them quickly, especially as momentum to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which also has negative implications for access to medicines, is gathering in the USA. The Lancet Commission on Essential Medicines, to be published on Nov 8, 2016, will provide a timely platform to look at health innovation and access in the much wider context of comprehensive medicine policies. It will provide actionable recommendations that will complement and possibly leverage those of the panel’s and reaffirm essential medicines as a keystone of the global health and development agenda. „

Source: Access to medicines—the status quo is no longer an option. The Lancet, 24 September 2016

Download report Promoting innovation & access to health technologies. High-Level Panel on Access To Medicines, September 2016