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Obama Admin opposes making other nations share cost of drugs

Fake drugs on the rise
Flickr, by Rodrigo Senna

On the face of it, this might sound a bit odd.

But then, that’s the way politics and foreign policy often sound. Odd.

The U.S., which pays for something like 70 percent of the costs of researching and developing new drugs, this week at the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva opposed creating a mechanism requiring other nations to pay more — a fair share.

In short, the Obama Administration opposed a plan to reduce our disproportionate spending on drug development.


Hardly any news media organization appears to have caught on to this story yet, even though it has broad implications for American taxpayers as well as for the poor overseas.

The most extensive (well, really the only) news report of this turn of events in Geneva comes from Zach Carter at the Huffington Post, Obama Administration Blocks Global Health Fund to Fight Disease in Developing Nations. Says Carter:

The Obama administration has alarmed global health experts by opposing a new international fund that would fight disease in the developing world. The new fund would require other countries to share a cost burden currently borne predominantly by United States taxpayers, but has nevertheless generated ideological opposition from American negotiators.

Well, I’m not so sure the opposition really stems from ideological differences. The idea here, initially proposed by a working group on drug R&D costs convened the World Health Organization, is to tweak some of the financial incentives in the pharmaceutical industry that now discourage drug companies from doing research and development on drugs that solely benefit poor people.

As this overview of the initiative by notes:

The challenge has been to “de-link” profits from medical discoveries, so those patients least able to afford medical innovation can benefit. In 2010 a World Health Organization (WHO) commissioned expert working group (CEWG) set out to learn how it could create an R&D system where public interest, rather than profit, drives innovation.

Yeah, well, that kind of tweaking tends to get the attention of the drug industry — and it’s not usually favorable attention.

HuffPo’s Carter does hint that this could be provide the explanation for the otherwise inexplicable and costly (to us, Americans) position held by the Obama Administration in opposing this re-balancing of drug R&D costs:

American pharmaceutical companies profit heavily from the existing intellectual property and drug financing regime, which grants firms long-term monopolies on every new drug they develop. The new fund could establish a new international precedent that could be used to argue against drug company profits in other trade negotiations, in the name of public health.

But because many of the international negotiations underway now over trade and intellectual property regulations are being held behind closed doors, it’s hard to confirm if this is what’s behind the U.S. government’s seemingly self-injuring position on this.

“We are especially surprised to see the U.S. taking such a hardline position, since they already meet the level of financial contributions to medical R&D suggested in the expert report,” said Michelle Childs, director of policy and advocacy at Doctors Without Borders’ Access Campaign, in a written statement. “It’s high time that all countries move toward a sustainable solution to fix the market failure of the current R&D model and meet the needs of the majority of people on the planet.”



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.