Research on drug development for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), tuberculosis and malaria will receive a boost from a major initiative launched by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) last week (26 October).
'Re:Search' will provide free access to research on medicines, vaccines and diagnostics, based on patents and research held by a consortium of eight major global pharmaceutical companies, the US National Institutes of Health and other organisations.
But only the 49 least developed countries will be able to get a free licence to develop products based on the initiative, a limitation which has been criticised by key organisations in the field such as the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) and the aid organisation Doctors Without Borders.
"By joining WIPO Re:Search, companies and researchers commit to making selected intellectual property assets available under royalty-free licences to qualified researchers anywhere in the world for research and development," said Francis Gurry, director-general of WIPO.
If scientists get to the stage of commercialising a new product with information derived from the database then licences will be available free of charge for the least developed countries, and for other developing countries the costs will be negotiated, Gurry said.
Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, which was the first major institution to join the Medicines Patent Pool for HIV/AIDS, said: "We want to ensure that our biological materials and patents covering treatments or vaccines for neglected tropical diseases, as with all diseases, are available as broadly as possible to speed the development of new products for people who are most burdened by these diseases, and Re:Search helps us to do this".
The database will include research results and patents on thousands of compounds from pharmaceutical companies.
Companies are willing to allow access to their patents in the least developed countries because they see large development costs but only a small commercial market, according to Molly Polen, spokesperson for BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH), a non-profit organisation that will work with Re:Search to provide a 'partnership hub' and supporting activities for researchers and patent providers.
"However, many scientists in those companies want to work on these problems as they feel they are contributing to solving world problems," she said.
The DNDi, a public-private partnership based in Switzerland, has also joined the initiative, but warned that it did not go far enough.
"WIPO and other important players engaged in global health should take a step further in terms of access, especially by including not only the least developed countries, but all neglected-disease-endemic countries," said Bernard Pécoul, executive director of DNDi.
The UN lists 49 countries as 'least developed' while, according to the WHO, NTDs occur in some 149 nations.
Pécoul also called for more transparency in licensing practices that have a public health goal. "We have to go beyond the minimum," he said.
Tido von Schoen-Angerer, Doctors Without Borders' Access to Essential Medicines campaign director went further, saying the licensing terms were "timid" because of the "unacceptably limited geographic scope". For example, he said, Chagas disease affects 21 countries in the Americas but the consortium will provide royalty-free licences only to Haiti, where Chagas is not even endemic.
WIPO is setting a bad precedent for other licensing arrangements, he said, adding that at minimum, all disease-endemic developing countries should be covered.
See below for a WIPO video from the press conference: