WHO agrees to watered-down resolution on transparency in drug costs

World Health Organization members agreed to push for clearer drug pricing but stepped back from proposals by activists to force pharmaceutical firms to disclose the costs.

Doctors Without Borders welcomes move but says more needed to force drug companies to disclose more

Under a new deal, the World Health Organization will be mandated to monitor the impact of transparency on drug prices. (Shutterstock)

Countries at the World Health Organization agreed on Tuesday to push for clearer drug pricing, after watering down a draft resolution that would have also required pharmaceutical firms to disclose the cost of making medicines.

The deal calls on governments to share more information about the prices they pay for drugs, which can vary widely around the world and are often kept shrouded in secrecy.

It was hailed as a landmark by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and "enthusiastically welcomed" by the United States, which had advocated making pricing clearer while allowing firms to keep their research costs secret.

However, Britain, Germany and Japan, which have health-care systems that depend on negotiating steep discounts from drug companies to keep their costs down, said the debate had been rushed and called for the issue to be studied more closely.

An earlier draft of the text would have also given the WHO explicit powers to collect and analyze data on the costs of making and testing drugs. That wording was omitted from Tuesday's draft.

Activists say drug companies should be obliged to disclose how much their products actually cost to design and make. Drug companies argue that such data can be a commercial secret, and that prices should be set based on a drug's benefit to patients.

'Welcome first step'

Gaelle Krikorian at medical charity MSF called the resolution a "welcome first step" but said it needed to go further to force drug companies to disclose more.

"We need to know the mark-ups corporations charge, production costs, the cost of clinical trials, how much investment is really covered by companies, and how much is underwritten by taxpayers and non-profit groups," she said.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations industry lobby group said the resolution's "single focus" on price fell short of the complexity needed to address issues about affordability and access to medicines.

The resolution, which was initially proposed by Italy, urges governments to publicly share information on net prices. WHO member states will also support dissemination of information about the costs from clinical trials, if it is already publicly available or voluntarily provided.

James Love, head of the transparency campaign group Knowledge Ecology International called the resolution a "solid start" in addressing the issue of opaque drug prices, but said the text made "tortured dances around R&D costs."

"This will be seen by industry as language making costs data confidential information," he said on Twitter.

The negotiations over the resolution showed how difficult the issue of drug pricing can be. In many countries, the government negotiates bulk discounts with companies in secret. In the United States, where drug prices are frequently far higher than in other rich countries, they are usually set commercially by insurance companies and benefits managers.

Germany's delegate Dagmar Reitenbach described the negotiations over the resolution as acrimonious, harmed "by leakage of perceived positions with a view to intimidate some delegations publicly, accompanied by incorrect information regarding [their] reasoning."