Seattle’s week of private meetings on global health

This week, several “invitation-only” meetings will be held in Seattle featuring hundreds of leading experts in global health from around the world.

They all revolve around the Pacific Health Summit, which starts Wednesday.

One of those confabs orbiting the summit is the Global Health Research Congress, which starts today.

Launched in Seattle last year with backing from the Gates Foundation, the Congress’ stated aim is to help scientists inform and complement policy discussions at the Pacific Health Summit — which also gets Gates money and is difficult to summarize as its intended purpose has “evolved” over time. More on that below.

Both meetings this year are focused on vaccines — exploring how best to discover, develop and distribute.

These goals clearly represent a public good.

Yet their discussions and decision-making are private.

Journalists, like me, are allowed in to the meeting and all the formal discussions. But even for the sessions we are allowed to sit in on, we have to get permission from any attendee before making public what they say.

It’s annoying and cumbersome. I complain about it almost every year and then usually go anyway. I’m not the only one. Here’s a 2009 article by Sandi Doughton on the exclusivity of the new “Davos of global health.”

And last week, I ran into at least one world-renowned expert in global health who said he is refusing to attend the Pacific Health Summit due to this restraint on free and open discussion.

Richard Horton

“Transparency and participation are the absolute values that should govern global health today,” said Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet. Horton was in Seattle last week for a board meeting (an open meeting) at the UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

“The Pacific Health Summit is held off-the-record, under the so-called Chatham House Rules, so people don’t have to be held accountable for what they say,” Horton said. “There should be no place for such lack of accountability and the Pacific Health Summit should be ashamed of itself for allowing it.”

Michael Birt, one of the organizers of the summit, said the idea is to allow for a lively and open exchange of ideas or arguments within the meeting by freeing participants from having to worry about any particular word or phrase being taken out of context. Birt’s a nice guy and I don’t want to be disagreeable, but I tend to hold with Horton.

What both the Global Health Research Congress and the Pacific Health Summit hope to accomplish, more importantly perhaps than just irritating journalists, is to deal with a major problem with vaccines.

“It’s actually a problem of success,” Birt said.

Thanks in large part to massive investments by the Gates Foundation in new vaccine development and delivery initiatives, he said, the global health community is now facing a bottleneck. Basically, we have more vaccines than can be delivered to poor communities — due to lack of infrastructure, health systems capacity, cost and other barriers.

“There has been no health technology as powerful and as successful as the vaccine,” said Birt. But these new vaccines won’t do much good if the delivery bottleneck, the barriers to access, aren’t removed.

“That’s our primary goal at the summit,” he said. “We get things done at this meeting…. We’re good at launching collaborations, especially at connecting the public and private sectors.”

In addition to the Gates Foundation, the summit is an initiative of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Wellcome Trust and the National Bureau of Asian Research. Lead sponsors include Microsoft, Swedish Medical Center, a number of drug companies such as Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, Chevron, General Electric, UPS and Coca-Cola.

It’s kind of a weird confab, in short — and apparently heavily weighted on the private side. When the Pacific Health Summit was started in 2005, it was focused mostly on the health care market in Asia and on the aim of pushing early detection technologies (a key area of interest by Lee Hartwell, co-founder of the summit, former Fred Hutchinson president and a Nobel Prize laureate).

In 2006, the summit was still focused on early detection/diagnosis technologies but organizers this time put more emphasis on exploring how these techniques could reduce the burden of disease in poor countries. I quoted Hartwell at the time: “We didn’t really know what we were doing the first year.”

Since then, Birt said, the Pacific Health Summit has become more focused on some of the most critical issues of global health such as pandemic influenza, drug-resistant TB and now vaccines.

The meeting, he said, has become “a premier event on the global health agenda” typically featuring the head of the World Health Organization, foreign ministers of health, top CEOs, leaders of major research organizations and so on.

“We’ve got the right people in the room,” Birt said.

Yes, but we may not be able to tell you what they’re doing or saying.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.