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WHO drug pricing talks may fail to end secrecy, activists fear

GENEVA (Reuters) – Governments are working on a drug pricing transparency deal at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) annual assembly, but activists said on Thursday they fear crucial costs may be left out, enabling pharmaceutical firms to keep prices high.

Campaigners say some drugs are exorbitantly priced, even though they are often developed with public funding, and health providers often pay far too much, since governments negotiate prices without knowing what the treatment cost to develop.

“We are not talking about a revolution for the sector, we are talking about just setting a fair price according to what has been invested,” said Patrick Durisch at Public Eye, a Swiss non-profit organization. “Why should it be different for the pharmaceutical industry than in other sectors?”

A six-page draft published by the WHO on Thursday urges states to publish prices and costs of medicines, vaccines, cell and gene-based therapies and other health technologies, and improve the transparency of medical patents.

The draft, a work in progress with many proposed changes to the text, could also mandate the WHO to collect and analyze data and costs from clinical trials and procurement prices for medicines and vaccines, although the draft showed Switzerland, Germany and Japan have asked for that section to be deleted.

On Monday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the United States was very supportive of greater drug pricing transparency, hoping to bring down published “list prices” for drugs and “out of pocket expenses” for consumers.

But there were some areas where lifting the veil of corporate secrecy may not be worthwhile, such as in R&D spending, Azar told reporters.

“The question around R&D is: is that actually meaningful transparency, and information that would go into the pricing and negotiation of products? We suspect that is not necessarily the highest value area for our efforts, but we continue to look at that.”

Transparency campaigners said they feared that a handful of countries, including Germany and Britain, were trying to kill the resolution with “a thousand cuts”.

Gaelle Krikorian from medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said she could not understand why governments, which buy medicines, wanted to blindfold themselves in price negotiations with drug companies.

“We want to open the black box,” she said.

James Love, director of Knowledge Economy International, said that although the resolution was not mandatory, asking firms to report the cost of clinical trials was proving controversial.

“There’s a strong possibility that the delegates agree on a resolution that does not touch on costs at all,” he said.

The assembly ends on Tuesday.

Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Alexandra Hudson

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