On September 14, the United Nations’ High Level Panel on Access to Medicines released its long-anticipated final report, which purports to provide recommendations for improving global access to health care. Amidst murmurings that the Panel was poised to focus on intellectual-property rights, experts urged the group to consider real barriers to access such as weak infrastructure and a dearth of skilled healthcare workers. But the Panel chose not to heed their advice. Although the Panel acknowledged numerous factors that stop people from getting the life-saving medicines they need, it explained that it had a narrow mandate to focus on a perceived incoherence between intellectual-property rights and access to health care. 

As predicted, the report recommends massively scaling back intellectual property rights. Among its most contentious recommendations, the Panel encourages countries to implement legislation that would force drug companies to license their patented-protected drugs to governments.  The Panel also recommends sanctions for countries or companies that seek to protect their patent inventions against a compulsory licensing system. The Panel further calls on countries to discourage universities from exclusively licensing their inventions. And the Panel encourages countries to spend more on research and development of drugs so as to “delink” research and development from drug prices.

In issuing these recommendations, the Panel ignored its only member with drug development experience—Andrew Witty of GlaxoSmithKline. Buried toward the end of the report is his statement expressing concern regarding the Panel’s recommendations. As to compulsory licensing, Witty explains, “innovations would be endangered for patients around the world” given that companies would be less willing to invest in research and development if they cannot protect their profits. Witty also points out that de-linkage between research and development and drug prices could also “damag[e] innovation.”

Unsurprisingly, many experts and institutions—including the U.S. State Department—have heavily criticized the report. The State Department expressed its “dee[p] disappoint[ment]” in the report; the Department opined that it was “regrettable that the Panel worked under the presumption of ‘policy incoherence’ between intellectual property rights, international trade liberalization, and human rights, while failing to properly recognize the important role that these systems play in incentivizing drug development and expanding access to medicines around the world.” As the State Department aptly put it: “Intellectual property rights and trade are essential to medical innovation, which is fundamental to promoting global health.”

The UN had a real opportunity to address a global crisis. Unfortunately, it not only missed that opportunity, but has offered proposals that may entrench access problems even further