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Making the Health Impact Fund a Reality

How does a promising idea become a political reality? Professor Thomas Pogge, director of the Global Justice Program, is confronting this question head-on as the leader of an international campaign to reform the global system of intellectual property rights for medicine.

Thomas PoggeThe promising idea is a proposal for a new international institution, called the Health Impact Fund, or HIF. The origin of the proposal lies in Professor Pogge’s research on the persistence of severe poverty. One major source of suffering among the poor is a lack of access to essential medicine. Many of the diseases concentrated among the poor – famously, tuberculosis and malaria, but also Chagas disease, leishmaniasis, and others – are dramatically under-researched compared to diseases prevalent in affluent countries. This lack of research is, in turn, in large part the result of a lack of sustained financial incentives to invest in medicines for these neglected diseases. Research into new medicines has traditionally been quite successfully incentivized by the ability to patent and sell those medicines. This system fails, however, when the potential patients of a new a medicine can’t afford to pay for it.

The HIF would fill in this gap by complementing the existing intellectual property system for medicine. Firms would voluntarily register new drugs with the HIF, and in exchange for agreeing to sell those drugs at cost, the firms would be paid a reward based solely on the assessed impact on health. The HIF would provide strong incentives for the development and successful delivery of drugs that made large inroads into the global burden of disease, but which wouldn’t be profitable under the uncomplemented patent system.

The implementation of the Health Impact Fund as a well-funded international agency requires agreement from the national governments, the pharmaceutical industry, and public health organizations. To drum up support, Professor Pogge has embarked on a worldwide publicity campaign, which has received considerable attention. In February, the Colombian Vice-Minister of Social Protection, whose portfolio includes health, was Professor Pogge’s commentator at a packed event in Bogotá. In March, he and other members of the Global Justice Program held briefings for members of the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees in Washington, DC. He has also made stops in Johannesburg, Edmonton, London, and throughout the United States. Each of these small steps helps to build the consensus that the Health Impact Fund should become a reality.