Jamie Love’s Next Big Idea: Making the WTO into a force for good in Public Health

June 6, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve heard the name Jamie Love mentioned in reverential tones over the years, and a few weeks ago, I was asked by STOPAIDS to interview him in an ‘in Jamie Loveconversation’ format in front of a small group of activists. It was fantastic fun (for me at least).

Jamie is director of Knowledge Ecology International and is known as perhaps the world’s leading activist and policy entrepreneur on reforming the rules governing research and development (R&D)  for medicines and medical technologies and the role of intellectual property (IP, more of that later), but I started off asking him about his ‘moment of conversion’ – when did he decide to become an activist?

As often happens, the answer was pretty surprising. As an 18 year old Nixon Republican, Jamie headed off on a romantic quest to work in a fishing cannery in Alaska. He found himself the only white boy among Filipino migrants in a semi-apartheid system, in which the Filipinos were banned from operating cranes or going into town unaccompanied, and women were paid less than men. He got radicalized, ended up giving evidence in a Department of Justice investigation, and then started a non-profit free medical clinic/advice centre for the unemployed in Anchorage.

Fast forward 45 years and what is he most proud of? He dashed off some extraordinary wins – working with Ralph Nader to win public access to key US government databases in the 90s, then getting involved in IP, working with a coalition of activist groups like MSF to launch a global campaign for compulsory licensing of patents on AIDS medicines. His work included

IP cartoonAt 65, his drive is unabated. His next big idea (he doesn’t do small ones) is to try and find a way to revive the public R&D system for new drugs, which in recent decades has been squeezed out by funding cuts, IP and Big Pharma.

To reverse this, he is dusting off a 2009 proposal for a new WTO Agreement on the Supply of Public Goods (ASPG) (it got sidelined by all the interest in the Treaty on the Blind Union). Here’s what he said at the meeting:

‘The WTO was set up to promote trade in private goods and services. To do this, it created a dispute resolution mechanism (DRM) far more serious than any human rights agreement.

The architectural model for the ASPG is the Global Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS): countries table their promises, either individually or as groups. They then negotiate with other countries about their promises. Once the promises are agreed, they becomes binding, and subject to the DRM.

So for example, a country could offer to fund R&D into tuberculosis drugs, or pledge cash for the Global Fund, or regulatory reform (access to information on drug trials, or exemptions on patents for neglected diseases).’

According to Love, the US and UK governments both like it, (he hasn’t talked to China yet) – he has yet to find any opposition. The GATS system of request and offer would both add teeth (via the DRM) to the kind of promises leaders love to bandy about at international summits (and then escape without sanction when they break them) and avoid the attempt to negotiate a single overarching treaty of everything, which has got so stuck in the current Doha round of trade talks.

What do you think of the idea? As he spoke, I could feel the policy wonk ‘yes buts’ welling up. Yes, but do we really want to make the WTO even more



powerful? Yes, but surely, countries are never going to start talks on a new agreement when the Doha Round has been such a disaster? Yes, but would government really invoke the DRM on another government’s failure to pursue public interest goals?

But that’s just me picking nits – Jamie Love is a visionary policy entrepreneur, pushing out big ideas at an astonishing rate (he really ought to patent them…..) Even more astonishing is the number of them that end up being adopted in some form. I wouldn’t bet against seeing something on this in the WTO ten years down the line. It might even end up salvaging its battered reputation.