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Nations target health gaps in poorer countries

Almost a third of all tuberculosis cases are in Africa

(Keystone)

Swiss officials say an important step has been taken in Geneva towards boosting drugs research into diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries.

Their comments follow the first meeting of a World Health Organization body set up to prepare a global strategy and action plan to ensure poorer populations get better access to medicines.

Speaking at the end of five days of talks, Gaudenz Silberschmidt, head of international affairs at the Federal Health Office, said there was a sense of urgency among many countries to see some measures adopted as early as May next year.

These include setting up a forum where the pharmaceutical industry, non-governmental organisations, governments and charitable foundations can exchange information; introducing a voluntary mechanism for reporting progress; and identifying research gaps.

"Because so many things are going on in an uncoordinated manner it is difficult getting an overview of which issues are not being addressed by public/private partnerships, individual companies or government-funded research," Silberschmidt told swissinfo.

According to the WHO, priorities include neglected diseases such as sleeping sickness, as well as HIV/Aids, malaria, tuberculosis, diabetes and cancer.

The first session of the WHO's intergovernmental working group on public health, innovation and intellectual property attracted delegates from more than 100 countries and experts from civil society and academia.

They discussed eight principal elements: prioritising research and development needs; promoting research and development; transfer of technology; management of intellectual property; improving delivery and access; ensuring sustainable financing mechanisms; establishing monitoring and reporting systems.

Big achievement

According to the Swiss, the fact that all parties from the pharmaceutical industry to governments are agreed on tackling the health needs of developing countries is a major achievement in itself.

"Ten years ago this would have not been possible. It took time for this gap in the system to be recognised," said Peter Beyer, legal adviser of the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property.

Silberschmidt pointed out that a significant increase in funding from both governments and other sources, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, had led to the creation of many public/private partnerships.

He highlighted examples such as the Novartis Institute of Tropical Diseases in Singapore – a joint initiative between the government of Singapore and the Basel-based giant – and Roche's "transfer technology" initiative to help African companies produce generic drugs for HIV.

"Whereas before 1999 a very small number of new drugs came onto the market, now the research pipeline is looking much better," he said.

"I would like to stress that there is still a very long way to go, but I know the world wants us to succeed and we will," he added.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

In brief

The inter-governmental working group was established by the WHO in response to a World Health Assembly resolution in May this year.

The resolution followed an independent report by the WHO Commission on Intellectual Property and Public Health, chaired by former Swiss cabinet minister Ruth Dreifuss.

It found that current medical research and development often failed to address the needs of developing countries and that even when products exist poor populations struggle to access them.

The group will convene again in 2007 to finalise the global strategy and plan of action, which will be presented to the World Health Assembly in May 2008.

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