The Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) launched a consortium (October 26) to make intellectual property licenses on ‘neglected tropical diseases’ like malaria and tuberculous free of charge for the world’s poorest nations.

 The WIPO Re:Search initiative is designed to accelerate the discovery and development of medicines and vaccines for malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases through  a database designed to allow  researchers to work directly with scientists at pharmaceutical companies.

“This is a broadly based public-private project with developed and developing countries participating," said WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry, adding that all available information on the subject of treating these neglected diseases will be accessible on a new website.

Eight pharmaceutical giants have joined the consortium, including Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZenneca and Pfizer. David Brennan, chief executive of AstraZeneca, said his company will make available to WIPO Re:Search all of its patents for the 20 or so tropical diseases on their list.  “Currently 1 billion people suffer from these diseases. That’s one seventh of the world’s population. It is our belief that patent rights don’t have to be a barrier to health care.”

BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH) will administer the project under the leadership of Don Joseph who said that “WIPO Re:Search will build on previous R&D investments to speed the development of drugs, vaccines and diagnostics for the neglected diseases that disproportionately impact people living in resource-poor countries.”

The free licensing applies only to the least developed countries (LDCs). According to Gurry, the more developed countries, including richer nations that may have problems with these diseases migrating to their shores, will have to negotiate moderate prices with the pharmaceutical companies. 

Médecins Sans Frontières called limiting the patent waiver  LDCs “a timid approach”. “By agreeing to licensing terms that have an unacceptably limited geographic scope,” MSF said in a statement, “WIPO is taking a step in the wrong direction and setting a bad precedent for other licensing arrangements.”

However, Kenya’s Ambassador in Geneva, Tom Mboya Okeyo, one of the project partners, took a longer-term approach. “Who said LDCs will always be poor?  Look at China. These are potential markets today for medicines that can be sold in the future.”

Those presenting the project to the press were peppered with questions about how pharmaceutical companies could give up their patent rights and still pursue a profit motive. Tanzania’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Lumbanga noted that in today’s corporate world CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) programs are playing an ever larger role.

Robert Sebbag, Vice President of French pharmaceutical Sanofi, agreed. “This is a ‘no profit – no loss’ agreement and I agree CSR counts a lot. Image and respect are important for companies, not just profits.”