Some of the world's biggest drugmakers have joined forces with the United Nations' World Intellectual Property Organisation to set up a consortium to share patent information with researchers looking to develop treatments for neglected diseases.

WIPO Re:Search claims that "valuable IP and expertise" will be shared with "the global health research community" to promote development of new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics to treat neglected tropical diseases, malaria and tuberculosis. Eight pharmaceutical firms - Alnylam, AstraZeneca, Eisai, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co, Novartis, Pfizer and Sanofi - will make patents available to the likes of the US National Institutes of Health and "multiple non-profit research organisations".

The initiative will provide "a searchable, public database of available intellectual property assets, information, and resources". IP licensed via WIPO Re:Search will be on a royalty-free basis for R&D on neglected tropical diseases; the World Health Organisation says that the latter impair the lives of one billion people.

David Brennan, chief executive of AstraZeneca and president of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, said industry has "an important part to play in addressing unmet medical needs, and increasing access to our collective proprietary information will help advance research into treatment options for these underserved diseases". He added that WIPO Re:Search "has the potential to make a real impact on global health", noting that AstraZeneca  will make all patents it owns available to the initiative.

The Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), which will participate in the new venture, welcomed the plans, noting that they confirm "a recent growing trend of openness in the management of IP for global health". After the Medicines Patent Pool for HIV launched by UNITAID and the Pool for Open Innovation for Neglected Tropical Diseases launched by GSK, "WIPO Re:Search represents an additional move towards more open mechanisms", the organisation says.

However, DNDi executive director Bernard Pecoul argues that "WIPO and other important players engaged in global health should take a step further in terms of access, especially by including not only the least developed countries but all neglected disease-endemic countries". He added that "we need to aim for more transparency in licensing practices that have a public health goal. We have to go beyond the minimum".

'Timid' initiative

Medicines Sans Frontieres was much more critical, saying that “instead of allowing all countries where neglected diseases are prevalent to access the products, the initiative restricts royalty-free licences to least-developed countries only, with access for other developing countries negotiable on a case by case basis". The group noted that in the Americas, Chagas disease affects 21 countries, "but the consortium will only provide royalty-free licences for Haiti, where Chagas is not endemic".

MSF went on to say that "by agreeing to licensing terms that have an unacceptably limited geographic scope, WIPO is taking a step in the wrong direction and setting a bad precedent". It concluded by saying that "with its timid approach to licensing terms, WIPO is falling behind in its access policies, when it should be leading".