SPEECHES — DG ROBERTO AZEVÊDO

DG Azevêdo meets with WHO Director-General Tedros and WIPO Director-General Gurry at WHO Headquarters
DG Azevêdo meets with WHO Director-General Tedros and WIPO Director-General Gurry at WHO Headquarters

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Director-General Tedros,
Director-General Gurry,
Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning. And let me thank the WHO for hosting us here today. I'm very pleased to welcome Dr Tedros to this trilateral dialogue.

Of course it’s not the first time we’ve shared a podium. We were together at the G20 Summit in Hamburg in July last year, and the Social Forum of the Human Rights Council last October. I think this is a good reminder that our trilateral work takes place within a broader multilateral framework – including the human rights dimension and the Sustainable Development Goals.

This is precisely our focus today – and particularly how the SDGs can be advanced through the development of innovative medical technologies, and by measures to enhance access to such technologies.  

The WTO is deeply invested in work on the SDGs, recognizing the linkage between trade, economic growth and development more generally. 

Trade has proven to be an important engine for poverty reduction, playing a significant role in the early achievement of MDG 1. 

Given the cross-cutting nature of trade's contribution to the SDGs, the WTO's work has bearing on a number of specific targets across a range of goals. And we have started to deliver on these targets.

Of course, our discussion today is more concerned with SDG 3 on health and well-being.

Target 3.b refers to the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health – specifically, the use of flexibilities under the WTO TRIPS Agreement to protect public health and provide access to medicines for all.

The WTO has taken two major steps towards delivering this target. 

First, WTO members have agreed to give LDCs maximum possible flexibility in the area of pharmaceuticals until at least 2033.

And second, last year we secured the entry into force of the public health amendment to the TRIPS Agreement. This was the first multilateral amendment to WTO law. It gives legal certainty to an additional pathway for access to affordable medicines for developing countries that lack the capacity to produce those medicines.

The WTO Secretariat is now actively working with members to ensure that the mechanism functions as a practical procurement tool that enhances access to innovative medicines for patients in need.

Access to innovative medical technologies has shown the potential to completely transform health outcomes in terms of the management of both communicable and non-communicable diseases.

This is particularly pertinent in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We have to look ahead to the technologies of tomorrow.

Biotechnology is set to revolutionise healthcare in a variety of ways. For example, we now have the very real possibility of integrating digital technologies with biological tissues. The World Economic Forum reports that companies are engineering bacteria to produce resins and personal care products. And we are seeing the possibility of medicines which are tailored precisely to the individual's personal profile rather than to a generic patient.

The MIT Technology Review reported last year that in Burkina Faso, Mali and Uganda, preparations are being made for a project to apply some of these innovations to tackling malaria. They are aiming to release mosquitoes that have been genetically programmed to drive themselves toward extinction.

Clearly there is huge potential here – but it comes with a range of concerns and considerations.

So we have to consider the applications and the implications of these new technologies, what they mean for our work here, and what they mean for promoting healthy lives and well-being around the world.

Clearly there is no scope for complacency.

Major public health burdens remain, yet incentives are lacking for innovative activities to address certain health problems, particularly those affecting the poorest countries. This means exploring new innovation models, which is an important theme in our trilateral work.

But equally, it means doing all we can to ensure that new technologies reach those in greatest need.

Our three organizations, together with other stakeholders, share a responsibility to address these challenges so that innovative technologies come to the market, in affordable, sustainable and accessible form.  That is the message of SDG 3 underscoring the entitlement of countries to make full use of available policy options and flexibilities under the TRIPS agreement, in line with the Doha Declaration.

WTO members have vigorously debated the relationship between intellectual property and innovation as well as the importance of a balanced IP regime for promoting the public interest.

Today's symposium is an opportunity to advance this discussion, and to strengthen the empirical foundation for policy debate.

In the third session, this afternoon, we aim to set out how trade policy settings can operate in practice to speed up and facilitate access to affordable medicines for the many countries that are reliant on trade for the bulk of their needed medicines.

Some positive, practical steps are already being taken in this area at the WTO.

One notable feature of pharmaceutical innovation is the increasingly significant R&D activity conducted by start-ups and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises – or MSMEs.

Many new medical technologies come from such start-ups before they are developed and marketed by major players in the pharmaceutical industry. It is therefore of crucial importance that MSMEs find the necessary support for their innovative R&D activities in the international trading system, and manage the related IP effectively, bearing in mind the ultimate public interest in the effective availability of their innovative technologies.

And at our Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference last December, 87 WTO members came together to launch an informal work programme on MSMEs. This could potentially help to strengthen the role of start-ups in this area.

The WTO's Government Procurement Agreement can also provide useful guidance as to the type of provisions needed in order to put a well-functioning procurement regime in place.

Every country relies on imports, to some extent, for its access to medicines and their ingredients. Trade costs and delays unfortunately hit those countries hardest who are least able to absorb these barriers to access to medicines.

The implementation of the WTO's Agreement on Trade Facilitation, which entered into force last year, will therefore facilitate and accelerate access to medicines in developing countries.

Since its inception ten years ago, our trilateral co-operation has proven to be a valuable tool to pool our expertise, towards achieving better outcomes for public health. The WTO is committed to continuing and further strengthening this partnership – and to include other stakeholders in our collaborative efforts.

Today’s conversations can help to guide this work, and inform our shared efforts to ensure that we maximise the role of innovation and technology in promoting health and well-being.

So I look forward to an inclusive, thought-provoking, and forward-looking dialogue today.

And I look forward to working with you all to play our part in delivering the SDGs.

Thank you for listening.

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