Promoting Global Health by Sharing Knowledge

Today, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) joined BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and many leading pharmaceutical companies and non-profit research organizations to launch “WIPO Re:Search”.  WIPO Re:Search aims to promote the development and sale of new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics that will address diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and a set of Neglected and Tropical Diseases (NTDs) that don’t typically attract investment by the pharmaceutical and medical device industries despite affecting more than a billion people each year.

The public and private partners involved in WIPO Re:Search are making available a searchable, public database of patents and related information in order to facilitate new research partnerships to address NTDs, malaria, and tuberculosis.  WIPO Re:Search partners have committed to Guiding Principles that include, for example, a commitment to make patented technology available for research and sale of treatments for NTDs, malaria, or tuberculosis in the world’s poorest countries without charging additional fees for use of the technology. 

The NIH will make a number of patents available to WIPO Re:Search and license them royalty-free to help the private sector develop diagnostics, therapeutics, and devices to improve public health in the least developed countries.  Today’s announcement builds on previous efforts by the NIH (including being the first entity to license patents to the Medicines Patent Pool) to ensure that its biological materials and patents covering treatments or vaccines for diseases are available as broadly as possible to speed the development of new products for people who are most burdened by these diseases. 

Despite recent promising steps towards the development of a vaccine, malaria kills almost 800,000 people every year.  Tuberculosis is responsible for more than 1.8 million annual deaths.  On top of malaria and tuberculosis, more than one billion of the world’s poorest people are affected by NTDs.  Rarely noted in news headlines, these diseases, which include leprosy, schistosomiasis (snail fever), dengue fever, rabies, onchocerciasis (river blindness), and trypanosomiasis (African sleeping sickness), collectively have a devastating impact.  NTDs tend to thrive in developing regions of the world, where water quality, sanitation, and access to health care are substandard.  But the United States is not immune -- some of these diseases also are found in areas of the United States with high rates of poverty.  The populations afflicted by these diseases are so impoverished that there is often little financial incentive for industry to invest in developing new or better products for a market that cannot pay. 

The participation of NIH and USPTO aligns with the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development in which President Obama called for greater efforts to leverage the power of research and development to improve disease treatment.  The path from research and development to improved disease treatment for patients in resource-poor settings is complex, but making existing knowledge available for research and manufacture of new products is one important component. 

As WIPO Re:Search moves forward, offerings from current partners are expected to grow and new partners are expected to join to add to the information, compounds, and services available.  This is an important opportunity to help make the knowledge owned by the U.S. Government as available as possible for research and development on products to improve the lives of the world’s poor. 

Quentin Palfrey is a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Hillary Chen is a Senior Advisor to the Deputy Director in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

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