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Press Release

For Additional Information, contact Nathan Ford, MSF London, at: 44.171.713.5600

Compulsory licenses and access to essential medicines

NGO-sponsored meeting
Geneva, 26 March 1999

Geneva, March 1999. The role of compulsory licensing1 of patents in broadening access to essential medicines will be examined in a meeting sponsored by Médecins Sans Frontières, Health Action International and the Consumer Project on Technology. 'We are very concerned about the growing number of lives at risk because of unequal access to medicines' says Dr Bernard Pécoul of Médecins Sans Frontières. The meeting will include discussion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa and Thailand, and other instances where compulsory licensing of medical patents may be appropriate for public health reasons.

Compulsory licensing is a legal mechanism used for both patents and copyrights in a wide range of fields such as computers, nuclear energy, music recordings and biotechnology. However, the use of compulsory licensing for HIV/AIDS drugs or other essential medicines is controversial: pharmaceutical companies and some governments in the industrialized countries have opposed the use of compulsory licensing for essential medicines. This is the subject of current international trade disputes involving the US, Thailand, South Africa and other countries.

Public health and consumer groups, governments of industrialized and developing countries, pharmaceutical companies, and international organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization will take part in discussions on compulsory licensing of patents to essential medical technologies at the NGO-sponsored meeting. 'The issue of compulsory licensing is too important to leave to patent officers and trade officials. The public health community has to get involved', explains Bas van der Heide of Health Action International.

Public health groups expect that some of these disputes will be put to the World Trade Organization which can review the acceptability of compulsory licensing under the international agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property.

'This meeting is important because of the alarming rise of communicable diseases in recent years' says James Love of the Consumer Project on Technology. 'There is a vast disparity in world income and access to essential medicines. New global trade agreements which set international norms on the protection of intellectual property should address the problems of access for the poor.'

In May of this year the World Health Assembly will meet in Geneva and discuss a resolution which addresses WHO's role in monitoring health implications of trade agreements and cooperation with the World Trade Organization on matters concerning trade and public health.

1 Compulsory licensing is defined by WHO as "when [a] judicial or administrative authority is allowed by law to grant a license, without permission from the holder, on various grounds of general interest."

The meeting will take place in the Palais des Nations, 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland on March 26, 1999, 9.00-17.00. Members of the press are invited to attend the meeting. Registration is obligatory for security reasons.

To register for the meeting contact Marie Paule Pierotti at MSF:

Tel 41-22-849-8400

Further information can be obtained from

Bas Van der Heide
Health Action International
Tel +31.20.683.3684 Fax +31.20.685.5002

Dr. Bernard Pécoul
Médecins Sans Frontières
Tel +33(0), Fax +33(0)1

James Love
Consumer Project on Technology
Tel 202.387.8030, Fax 202.234.5176

A web page for the meeting is on the Internet at: http://www.cptech.org/march99-cl

Background information about compulsory licensing is on the web at: http://www.cptech.org/ip/health/cl

Médecins Sans Frontières is the world's largest independent medical relief organization, providing care to victims of war, disasters and epidemics in 80 countries world-wide.

Health Action International is an informal network of more than 200 consumer, health, development action and other public interest groups involved in health and pharmaceutical issues world-wide.

Consumer Project on Technology is a US based non-profit research and advocacy organisation created by consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Its activities focus on information technologies, intellectual property and research and development.