World health: A lethal dose of US politics
>From Vern Weitzel <email@example.com>
World health: A lethal dose of US politics
By Dylan C Williams
BANGKOK - When World Health Organization (WHO) director general Lee Jong-wook
died of a cerebral hemorrhage last month before the start of the United Nations
agency's annual World Health Assembly, the world's most prominent public-health
official was arguably of a conflicted mind.
The WHO veteran was caught in the middle of an intensifying global debate over
how to reconcile intellectual-property protection with the pressing
public-health need to expand access to expensive life-saving medicines, a
hot-button issue that has sharply divided WHO member states along developed-
and developing-country lines.
An Asia Times Online investigation reveals that at the time of his death, Lee,
a South Korean national, had closely aligned himself with the US government and
by association US corporate interests, often to the detriment of the WHO's most
vital commitments and positions, including its current drive to promote the
production and marketing of affordable generic antiretroviral drugs for
millions of poor infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which
can cause AIDS.
According to senior and middle-ranking WHO officials familiar with the
situation, Lee blatantly bent to US government pressure in March when he made
the controversial decision to recall the WHO country representative to
Thailand, William Aldis, who had served less than 16 months in what
traditionally has been a four-year or longer posting.
A wrong opinion Aldis had made the mistake of penning a critical opinion piece
in the Bangkok Post newspaper in February that argued in consonance with WHO
positions that Thailand should carefully consider before surrendering its
sovereign right to produce or import generic life-saving medicines as allowed
by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in exchange for a bilateral free-trade
agreement (FTA) with the United States, which is currently under negotiation.
The WHO official also wrote that the stricter intellectual-property protection
measures in the proposed US-Thai FTA would inevitably lead to higher drug
prices and thereby jeopardize the lives of "hundreds of thousands" of Thai
citizens who now depend on access to locally produced cheap medicines to
survive. He noted too that the Thai government's current production of generic
treatments had allowed the country to reduce AIDS-related deaths by a whopping
Aldis' arguments directly mirrored stated WHO positions, but significantly were
at direct odds with the objectives of current US trade policy, which through
the establishment of bilateral FTAs aims to bind signatory countries into
extending their national intellectual-property legislation far beyond the
parameters of current WTO agreed standards.
A recent US Congressional Research Service report states that the United
States' main purpose for pursuing bilateral FTAs is to advance US
intellectual-property protection rather than promoting more free trade. The
Bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority Act of 2002, the applicable US legislation
for bilateral FTAs, states explicitly that Trade-Related Intellectual Property
Standards, or TRIPS, are by law non-negotiable and must reflect a standard of
protection similar to that found in US law.
A US ambassador to the UN in Geneva paid a private visit to Lee on March 23 to
express Washington's displeasure with Aldis' newspaper commentary, according to
WHO officials familiar with the meeting. A follow-up letter from the US
government addressed to Lee strongly impressed Washington's view of the
importance of the WHO to remain "neutral and objective" and requested that Lee
personally remind senior WHO officials of those commitments, according to a WHO
staff member who reviewed the correspondence.
The next day, Lee informed the regional office in New Delhi of his decision to
Perhaps strategically, Aldis' removal coincided with the height of Thailand's
recent political crisis, and failed to generate any local media attention at
the time. Internally, Lee had characterized Aldis' transfer to a research
position of considerable less authority in New Delhi as a promotion.
Suwit Wibulpolprasert, senior adviser to the Thai Ministry of Public Health,
early this month sent a formal letter to acting WHO director general Anders
Nordstrom, requesting an official explanation for Aldis' abrupt removal.
A large number of WHO staff members are employed on renewable 11-month
contracts, meaning that their standing inside the organization is on
perpetually shaky ground and hence curbs their ability to voice critical