Angry disagreements over calls by developed nations to limit the powers of a legally-binding document which regulates the exchange of materials and information in the case of virus-sharing were still unresolved as the 62nd World Health Assembly drew to a close last Friday (May 22).

The disagreements relate to the Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA), which forms part of the WHO pandemic preparedness framework. The SMTA covers the transfer of research materials from one organization to another in order for the recipient to use them for research purposes, and the sharing of benefits deriving from commercialised products resulting from the transferred materials.

At meetings before the Assembly began in Geneva, the US Special Representative for Avian and Pandemic Influenza, Robert Loftis, reportedly led calls for the SMTA relating to pandemic preparedness to be limited or even abandoned altogether, stating that it was “not appropriate” for the World Health Organization (WHO) to be telling “private entities” what to do. This brought strong reactions from developing nations, which say that the SMTA represents one of their few protections against the commercial interests of the “pharma cartel” which, they claim, would otherwise use the virus samples supplied by poorer countries to develop and patent products which they would then attempt to sell back to them at unaffordable prices.

The USA, European Union, Japan and other nations then suggested that the stalemate could be addressed in a series of “potentially informal” meetings. However, the African and South American nations, marshaled by Brazil, India and Indonesia, again rejected this proposal, calling instead for global negotiations, run through the World Health Organization (WHO), to create a completely new and more equitable SMTA.

Under the current arrangements, many rich countries have been able to sign contracts to secure 200 million doses of pandemic flu vaccines, or about 50% of the available total of season flu vaccines, said Indonesia’s Health Minister, Siti Fadila Supari. She asked: “what is left for the developing countries then?”

The Assembly accepted the resolution, put forward by 16 nations including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, requiring WHO director-general Dr Margaret Chan to take forward and conclude, in time for the WHO Executive Board meeting next January, a transparent process to finalise the remaining unresolved issues relating to pandemic preparedness framework, which include the SMTA.

R&D treaty agreed

Meantime, the Assembly - which was shortened from nine days to five in order to allow senior officials to return to their home countries to help oversee preparedness for a possible influenza pandemic - also approved a global strategy and plan of action on public health, innovation and intellectual property. Among other things, the treaty calls for real progress by 2015 towards boosting R&D into drugs needed to treat diseases which predominantly affect developing countries, and improvements in these nations’ access to such treatments.