Patently robbing the poor to serve the rich
The Lancet, Editorial
September 21, 2002

Patent laws protect rich nations and increase poverty in developing countries, concludes a report published on Sept 12 by the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights. Often marketed by rich countries as able to aid growth in the developing world and so reduce poverty, intellectual property rights (IPR) and systems to protect them have been sold to poorer nations as a necessity for economic development. Integrating Intellectual Property Rights and Development Policy (see Lancet Sept 14, p 858) proves that IPR systems serve to protect the rich, but the report also comes up with 50 recommendations for poorer nations to tip the balance in their favour.

Currently, all members of the World Trade Organization (WTO; 144 members as of January this year, accounting for over 90% of world trade, with 30 countries negotiating membership) have to sign up to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which sets out minimum standards for IPR protection. TRIPS came into force in 1995 with developed countries being given 1 year to comply, and least-developed countries having until 2006. Last year, at the WTO meeting in Doha, an extension until 2016 was granted for least-developed countries to exempt pharmaceutical products from patent protection.

The Commission's report calls for increased public funding for research and drug development into diseases that largely affect the poor (see Lancet June 22, p 2188) because IPR systems promote commercial funding for diseases that have a substantial market in rich nations. Public-health policies should guide countries' implementation of IPR systems instead of running counter to them. Differential pricing is encouraged (lower prices in poorer countries) and mechanisms are suggested to ensure that the differentials are maintained. Parallel importing (importing of patented medicines if they are cheaper elsewhere) is also encouraged for developing countries; practical advice on how to do this is offered. Compulsory licensing (production of medicines by companies other than the patent holder) is recommended to developing countries and, again, how to enact this process is outlined. These guidelines should aid the discussion on compulsory licensing scheduled for this week in Geneva at a WTO TRIPS Council meeting.

Médecins Sans Frontières, in a press release issued in response to the Commission's report, says "No government can ignore its recommendations", which MSF endorses as practical and action-oriented. Oxfam urges the UK government to use the report's findings to call for a substantive review and revision of TRIPS outside the current trade negotiations. "Such a step would demonstrate a genuine commitment by rich country governments to transform the WTO from a rich man's club to one that puts poverty reduction at the top of its agenda, as promised at Doha in 2001", concludes Oxfam.

The principal international institutions responsible for developing IPR policy are the WTO and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Many developing countries are dependent on WIPO to provide model laws and technical assistance to compile their IPR systems. The Commission's report puts the onus on WIPO, in particular, to ensure that the costs of implementing IPR systems do not outweigh the benefits in poor countries.

Set up in May, 2001, by Clare Short, the UK government's Secretary of State for International Development, the Commission's tasks were to assess the impact of intellectual property protection (which encompasses patent law, copyright, trademarks, and trade secrets) on developing countries and to recommend how IPR systems could be adapted to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals of reducing poverty and hunger, improving health and education, and ensuring environmental sustainability. The overall target is to halve the number of poor people by 2015.

The new Director-General of the WTO, Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi, who took up his appointment on Sept 1, would do well to invest some time studying this new report and working with WIPO and governments to put the 50 recommendations into practice. If, by 2005, at the end of his term in office, Dr Panitchpakdi could show that TRIPS favoured the poor, that would be an important measure of a job well done, and one vital step towards achieving the 2015 development target.

The Lancet

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