A group of medical researchers and non-governmental organisations last week urged the World Health Organization to set up a global treaty aimed at increasing research into diseases affecting the world's poor.
According to the proposal, submitted to the World Health Organization Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, Innovation and Health, and the World Health Assembly Executive Board on 24 February, parties to the treaty would each have to devote a proportion of their gross domestic product to medical research.
Through a mechanism modelled on the way that greenhouse gas emissions can be traded through the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, countries would be able to earn credits against their funding commitments by, for instance, transferring technology to developing countries.
The treaty would also use this credit mechanism to promote research on so-called neglected diseases, which affect millions of people in developing countries but receive scant attention from the global research community.
More than 160 scientists, public health experts, professors of law, economists, members of parliament, and others signed a petition supporting the treaty.
Among the supporters Massimo Barra, vice-president of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Tim Hubbard, head of human genome research at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, United Kingdom.
There is a growing feeling among such organisations and individuals that while investment in health research is greater than it has ever been, the existing focus on commercial production of patented drugs has not succeeded in providing drugs to those who need them most.
They hope to encourage the focus to shift towards making effective therapies more widely accessible by, for instance, making the results of publicly funded research freely available through 'open access' agreements, and encouraging medical researchers worldwide to share more information.
The petitioners' call is echoed in the current edition of PLoS Medicine by Nicoletta Dentico and Nathan Ford of the Neglected Diseases Group, an independent working group set up by Médecins Sans Frontières in 1999.
In their view, patents have led to drug counterfeiting and to twice as much money being spent marketing the drugs as on developing them. They add that current incentives given to the pharmaceutical industry are more likely to lead to mimicry of old drugs than to innovation of new ones.
Dentico and Ford believe that an international treaty would promote the development of safe, effective and affordable medicines that match the world's needs by prioritising health over trade, and shifting the bulk of research and development from the private to the public sector.
Successful precedents of international cooperation and information-sharing already exist, they say, citing the global mobilisation during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic.
The proposed treaty faces a number of obstacles. It threatens to clash with current patent rules, would require substantial government resources and faces opposition from the private sector.
Following earlier discussion of the proposed health research treaty, Philip Stevens, director of health projects at the International Policy Network said it was "designed to shift power from the private sector towards unaccountable bureaucrats".
"Experience suggests that this proposal is both insanely optimistic and dangerous," said Stevens in a December 2004 article he wrote in the Internet-based magazine Medical Progress Today. "The public sector has proven to be extremely ineffective at identifying and developing treatments for diseases, and shifting more resources into this sector would cripple the pace of global drug development."
Link to full text of petition (English)
Link to full text of petition (French)
Link to full text of petition (Spanish)