WHO board disagrees on flu drug patent issue

Jan 27, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – Instead of finding common ground on pandemic influenza planning, World Health Organization (WHO) members this week hit rocky terrain.

The WHO's executive board meeting stalled Jan 24, according to an Associated Press (AP) report, over a key pandemic planning issue: whether countries can override drug patents. When the discussion bogged down, the group took a break so delegates could call their governments for guidance, the report said.

The WHO's main concern is that H5N1 avian influenza, now circulating in Southeast Asia, will trigger a flu pandemic. Ten human cases have been confirmed in Vietnam since late December, and two more cases, both in young girls, were reported today, according to an Agence France-Presse report. Nine cases have been fatal.

Also fueling pandemic fears is a report this week that limited human-to-human spread of the virus probably occurred last September in Thailand. Another H5N1 case cluster involving one fatality and one illness in a Vietnamese family is being investigated.

The antiviral drug oseltamivir has been shown to inhibit type H5N1 viruses, which would make it a potentially invaluable treatment in the event of pandemic flu, but only for countries that could afford it.

WHO executive board delegate Dr. Viroj Tangcharoensathien, a Thai Ministry of Health official, said poor countries worry that they will lack the funds for a new treatment, according to the AP report. He said many countries have difficulty paying the $120 for a six-week course of antivirals to combat ordinary flu.

A resolution discussed by the WHO executive board addressed ways to improve disease surveillance, boost vaccine research, and stockpile a vaccine when one becomes available. Tangcharoensathien suggested expanding the resolution to allow countries to ignore drug patents in case of an outbreak. Similar steps have been taken for poor countries overwhelmed by HIV/AIDS cases, the AP story noted.

American and French delegates objected, the AP reported. Western pharmaceutical companies have contended that compulsory drug licensing could lead to smuggling or profiteering by manufacturers of generic drugs, the story said.

Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, who leads the WHO's communicable disease division, summed up the status of pandemic planning. "As a global community we are still ill-prepared—and as long as one of us is not prepared, none of us is prepared," he was quoted as saying.

See also:

Jan 26 WHO avian flu update

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