WIPO program encourages research into neglected diseases

A novel WIPO program brings IP owners and researchers together to facilitate scientific research into neglected diseases, with the aim of bringing royalty-free treatments to least developed countries.  50 voluntary collaboration agreements have been signed in the 2 years of operation.

The existence of IP rights is most commonly justified on the grounds that IP protection promotes innovation.  Giving inventors (or their employers) exclusive rights to their inventions for a period of time means that they have an opportunity to recover research and development (R&D) costs.  If other people can use an invention immediately, the inventor will not be adequately compensated for its effort and is less likely to invest in R&D.  (The same rationale is applied to copyright and designs.)

IP protections do not facilitate research into some diseases

However, IP rights don’t encourage innovation in all circumstances.  One of the most obvious gaps relates to diseases that disproportionately affect poor or marginalised populations – including malaria, tuberculosis, and the World Health Organization’s list of 17 neglected tropical diseases (including leprosy, scabies, snakebite, dengue and rabies).  These diseases affect more than 1 billion people.

Clearly, drugs for these diseases have enormous potential public health benefits.  However, the affected people have limited capacity to pay for treatments.  There are several disincentives for a commercial organisation to focus its (usually limited) R&D spend on neglected diseases, including that:

  • The retail price of a new drug must recover the R&D costs for the successful product, as well as subsidise R&D for unsuccessful products and make a profit for the company.  If a consumer can only afford to pay the cost of manufacture then even potentially life-saving products with large markets may not be commercially attractive.  On the flip side, products which address the needs and wants of wealthy consumers (such as anti-ageing and baldness treatments) may be commercially attractive even though the potential market is smaller and the public health benefits may be much lower.
  • Researchers need to be careful not to infringe existing IP rights owned by other entities.  If the owner chooses not to grant a licence or if the researcher can’t afford to pay a licence fee, R&D may be blocked until a patent expires.

WIPO Re:Search

In 2011, WIPO and BIO Ventures for Global Health launched a novel, cooperative initiative which works around some of these barriers and facilitates research into drugs, vaccines and diagnostics for neglected tropical diseases, malaria and tuberculosis – WIPO Re:Search.

The program connects researchers with the owners of existing IP relating to neglected diseases.  The IP owner and researcher sign a collaboration agreement, in which the IP owner agrees to give free access to resources for non-commercial research purposes.

  • The IP owner is advantaged through receiving access to research results at no out of pocket cost, and through reputational benefits.  There is no additional cost to the IP owner because the licensed assets already exist, and because the licensed IP will not be used commercially there is no impact on the market for the IP owner’s products.
  • The researcher benefits because it can piggy-back off existing research without having to pay.
  • People with the diseases benefit by increasing the chances that improved treatments will become available.  Any resulting products will be licensed on a royalty-free basis in least developed countries, enabling affordable access to treatments by those people most affected by the diseases.

Although WIPO Re:Search addresses some of the same policy aims as compulsory licensing of patents (which we wrote about here, here and here), this program is quite different.  WIPO Re:Search is a voluntary scheme, and the program is complementary to the rights of the IP owner, rather than competitive.

WIPO has just announced that WIPO Re:Search has facilitated 50 collaboration agreements in the two years it has been operating.  Approximately 40 of these were signed since February 2013.

While the figures are encouraging and the program seems like a possible win for everybody involved, the success of WIPO Re:Search will ultimately be judged by whether it leads to new drugs, vaccines or diagnostics.