NGO views: World Health Organization (WHO) voice on issue of medicines in transit to developing countries?

On 18 February 2009, 16 civil society groups sent a letter to Director-General Dr. Chan on the matter of the Dutch seizures of generic medicines in-transit to developing countries. In the letter, Dr. Chan was requested to “immediately undertake an assessment of the risks to public health programs presented by such seizures and any anti-goods-in-transit provisions that exist in current or proposed trade agreements, including those relating to anti-counterfeiting initiatives.” In doing the assessment, the WHO was asked to “interview developing country governments, UN agencies and other entities engaged in the trans-border delivery of generic medicines to developing countries, to fully document the extent to which medicines in transit are at risk regarding seizure or liability for infringement.”

On the same day, the same NGOS sent a letter to World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Pascal Lamy. Mr. Lamy responded on 4 March 2009. []

Lamy noted that “the issue at stake is certainly very important and sensitive. As such, it deserves to be adequately addressed so that efforts to enhance access to medicines are supported and the creation of barriers to legitimate trade is avoided. . . Your letter rightly points out the strong determination of all WTO Members to promote access to medicines for all which was explicitly confirmed in 2001 when the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health was adopted.”

Subsequently, UNITAID has issued a strong statement commenting on the Dutch confiscation of generic abacacvir, in transit from India to Nigeria, on behalf of a UNITAID funded program run by the Clinton Foundation. []

Separately MSF has disclosed that it stores medicines in Europe, in transit to developing countries, where products are legitimate generics. TACD, HAI, Oxfam, MSF, KEI and others have also sent letters (here, and here) to the European Commission and the Dutch government expressing concern about the seizures of legitimate generic medicines.

To date, the WHO has been silent on this issue.

The following are the views of NGOs on role of the WHO in addressing public health concerns over goods in transit.


Buko Pharma-Kampagne, Christian Wagner-Ahlfs (

“Cheap generics are essential for developing countries. Each attempt to label legally produced generics as counterfeit or product piracy, affects public health. We ask WHO to use its mandate for public health by encouraging European governments not to block generic imports to developing countries.”

Health GAP, Brook Baker, (office: +1 617-373-3217, mobile +1 617-259-0760,

“Is the WHO’s silence consent? Big Pharma, compliant customs officials, and calculating trade officials are engaging in a group embargo of legitimate generic medicines of assured quality, seized in transit as they move from a country of legitimate manufacture, India, to countries of legal consumption and compelling need in Latin America and Africa. As this outrage continues, week after week, nearly 20 seizures, the WHO maintains an eerie silence. Is this silence consent?”

HAI Global, Tim Reed, (+31 20 683 3684,

“As an NGO who has worked collaboratively with the World health Organisation (WHO) for many years on delivering increased access to essential medicines and the rational use of medicines in low and middle income countries, Health Action International is dismayed that WHO has remained quiet for so long about the recent spate of generic medicine seizures in Europe. This is an opportunity for WHO to show strong leadership and promote its own principle of universal access to essential medicines, with a clear message that the actions in European ports are unacceptable. Instead, we have a deafening silence.”

HAI Europe, Teresa Alves, (+31 20 683 3684,

“The public health dimension of the European seizures of generics cannot be ignored. Yet, the clock is ticking while the international health community awaits WHO’s reaction. WHO must act decisively to drive global health advocacy and represent the interests of those who do not have access to the medicines they need.”

IQsensato. Sisule F. Musungu (+41 22 332 2562,

“The silence of WHO on this issue may suggest a bigger systemic problem. These systemic problems have existed in other organisations. So we have the Doha Development Agenda for WTO and the WIPO Development Agenda for WIPO. Time might be ripe to think more deeply about WHO governance and leadership.”

Knowledge Ecology, James Love
, (office +1 202-332-2670, mobile +1 202-361-3040,

“The WHO should protect the poor, and champion access to medicine. There is a campaign by a handful of giant pharmaceutical companies and trade associations to undermine legitimate trade in generic medicines. As noted by the Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the seizures of medicines in transit to developing country markets is a serious issue. There are many resolutions and declarations that speak to the need to promote access to medicines, and the WHO clearly has a mandate in this area. The WHO needs to find its voice, and act.”

Medecins Sans Frontieres International, Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, Tido von Schoen-Angerer, MD (+ 41 22 849 8405,

“The seizure of legitimate, life saving drugs in transit in the Netherlands is an important public health problem that has been deliberately created through the influence of vested interest groups. WHO’s silence on this issue is incomprehensible. WHO leadership cannot keep shying away or limit itself to silent diplomacy whenever an issue is politically sensitive and could upset powerful groups. We need a WHO that is a vocal leader of public health for the people.”

Oxfam GB, Claire Seaward, (Tel: +44 1865 473411, Mob: +44 7887 632 660,

“Urgent action must be taken to ensure that generic medicines destined for developing countries are not delayed or seized in transit through the European Union. Oxfam looks forward to a robust response from the World Health Organization to ensure that developing countries access to medicines is not threatened. The seizure also affects medicines bought by UNITAID, which is hosted by the WHO. This requires even more urgent action from the WHO. The WHO should exercise this mandate, and start by providing a response to a letter sent by civil society groups that seeks to address this issue.”

TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue, Anne-Catherine Lorrain (+32 473 99 97 92,

“The silence of the World Health Organisation (WHO) sends the wrong signal on the crucial issue of the supply of legitimate generic medicines to developing countries. Consumers are looking to the WHO to provide leadership and expertise in resolving this issue, which is critical for our life and health.”

Third World Network, Sangeeta Shashikant (office: +41 22 908 3550, mobile: +41 78 757 2331,

“The lack of a prompt response by WHO on an issue that affects access to medicines in developing countries is extremely disappointing. It suggest a lack of commitment and leadership in WHO. As an organisation tasked with the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health, WHO must without any further delay push the EU to amend its Directive. WHO should also assess and speak out against the anti-counterfeiting initiatives such as IMPACT, WCO’s SECURE, ACTA that could have serious consequences for the availability of generics and access to medicines.”