WHO Adds 36 New Drugs to List of Essential Medicines

Shreerupa Mitra-Jha/Geneva
WHO Adds 36 New Drugs to List of Essential Medicines

The WHO today added 36 new drugs to the list of essential medicines, including groud-breaking new treatment for hepatitis C and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (TB), but some experts said prices needed to fall to make them accessible to patients in poorer countries.

The move opens the way to improve access to innovative medicines that show clear clinical benefits and could have enormous public health impact globally.

The WHO's Model List of Essential Medicines (EML), which is updated every two years, is used by governments around the world to help determine which treatments they should make available.

The WHO Expert Committee considered 77 applications and included 15 to the core list and 21 to the complementary list of EML, including five products for hepatitis C, four to target multi-drug resistant TB and 16 new medicines to the Essential Medicines for Children (EMLc) -- five to the core list and 11 to the complementary list.

Medicine for treating hepatitis C include sofosbuvir and daclatasvir. Drugs for targetting multi-drug resistant TB included bedaquiline and delamanid.

The core list represents the minimum medicine list of a basic health care system and the complementary list represents essential medicines for priority diseases.

WHO EML and EMLc list has a knock on effect on national governments where member states are expected to bring their national list in line with the WHO list.

"When new effective medicines emerge to safely treat serious and widespread diseases, it is vital to ensure that everyone who needs them can obtain them," said WHO Director General Margaret Chan in a statement.

However, some of the medicines in the list are exorbitantly priced and beyond the reach of most patients.

For instance, the price of Gilead's sofosbuvir, which is in the revised WHO EML, to cure hepatitis C, has been the subject of fierce debate with its USD 1000 a pill price tag.

Though Gilead has agreed to grant voluntary licences to 11 Indian generic companies for bringing the prices down for low-income countries, Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who treat hepatitis C patients in the poorest folds of the world, had told Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, that some of the conditions imposed were not acceptable.

Third World Network (TWN), Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) and some other organisations who had campaigned Trastuzumab for treatment of breast cancer, leading to its inclusion in this year's list said it was a step in the right direction but affordability of medicines remains an issue.

"The list is really a right step and includes some critical medicines for the treatment of cancer and hepatitis C," said KM Gopa Kumar, Legal Advisor of TWN.

"Now WHO and member states should ensure access to the new medicines included in the EML especially for the treatmnet of Hepatitis C and cancer using various policy measures including the use TRIPS flexibilities including compulsory license," said Kumar.

"The Expert Committe's decision to include costly new drugs for cancer (trastuzumab, imatinib, rituximab), hepatitis C (daclatasvir, sofosbuvir) and tuberculosis (bedaquiline, delamanid) signals a seismic change in public health.

"Emboldened by this new list, WHO member countries should make lawful pathways to make these treatments more widely available by regulating or eliminating monopolies-including through the granting of compulsory licences," said Thirukumaran Balasubramaniam, Geneva Representative of KEI.

The EML and EMLc is updated every two years by an Expert Committee.

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