Diseases that disproportionally afflict the world’s poor provide few incentives for profit-seeking drug companies. In the past couple years, collaborative patent sharing schemes have popped up to remedy this by helping drugmakers develop low-cost medicines for less developed nations. Last year, for example, UNITAID launched the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), which focuses on HIV drugs.
Yesterday, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a Geneva-based arm of the United Nations, unveiled its Re:Search database, a new open-access resource aimed at tackling malaria, tuberculosis and neglected tropical diseases. The database was launched in partnership with the Washington, DC-based non-profit BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH). Since 2009, BVGH has administered the Pool for Open Innovation against Neglected Tropical Diseases formed by the British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline.
But organizers hope that Re:Search will grow to ultimately supplant that database. Like GlaxoSmithKline’s effort, WIPO’s resource compiles intellectual property beyond patents, including assets related to many steps in the drug development process, such as research tools, manufacturing technology, as well as both experimental and marketed compounds. However, it is far more extensive, as eight major pharmaceutical companies and a dozen non-profit research organizations from around the world have contributed. The database is available to all scientists and drugmakers free of charge as long as they agree that any therapies stemming from the information are sold at cost of production to the UN’s list of the 48 least developed countries in the world.
Stephen Maurer, who studies innovation and science policy at the University of California–Berkeley School of Law, thinks that sharing non-patented proprietary information, previously held hostage by institutions, is the database’s major contribution. “This is a good first step in terms of getting out of this problem that intellectual property does nothing for the developing world,” he says.
However, Michelle Childs, director of policy and advocacy at Médecins Sans Frontières’ Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines in Geneva, worries that by only making drugs available to the most impoverished nations, Re:Search — like other patent pools before it — could leave out people in middle-income countries who can’t afford full-price meds (see Nat. Med. 17, 1023–1023, 2011).
“Restricting access to the least developed countries is just ignoring where people with neglected tropical diseases live,” Childs says. “By agreeing to licensing terms that have such an unacceptably limited geographical scope, the UN — a norm setting agency — is setting a bad precedent for future licensing arrangements.”
And without concrete targets, some experts worry whether the initiative will actually deliver on its stated goal of promoting the development of new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics. “Statements of goodwill made in good faith are not good enough,” says MPP head Ellen t’ Hoen. “Actual action needs to be put behind it.”