While the TRIPS Agreement establishes international minimum standards on patents, members of the World Trade Organization also retain some flexibilities to implement these standards. Many countries took active steps to ensure that these new obligations did not jeopardise their attempts to provide access to medicines for their people. It was time to fight for access to medicines.
In February 1998, the South African Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and 39 mostly multinational pharmaceutical companies took the Government of South Africa to court, saying that its attempts to increase the availability of affordable medicines violated both the South African constitution and the TRIPS Agreement.
The answer was provided by the WTO Ministerial Conference meeting at Doha in Qatar in November 2001. All WTO Countries unanimously agreed a joint declaration that affirmed their sovereign right to take measures to protect public health.
On 1 January 2005, the transitional period for India to start granting patents on medicines as required by the TRIPS Agreement came to an end, and the country had to change its law to make pharmaceutical products patentable.
In November 2006, Thailand announced its first ever decision to issue a compulsory licence for the antiretroviral efavirenz. The move allowed the country to import significantly more affordable generic versions of the drug – patented and priced out of reach of patients in Thailand - from Indian manufacturers, and subsequently produce the drugs locally.
In late 2006, MSF launched an effort to get Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis to drop its legal case aimed at strengthening patents in India. A petition gathered more than 420,000 signatures worldwide and elicited calls of support from global figures. Novartis refused to back down, but in August 2007, the company lost its case in court to try to change India’s patent law, allowing it, for now at least, to remain the ‘pharmacy of the developing world’.
Two years of multilateral negotiations conclude with WHO member states adopting a Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property, and committing to explore new mechanisms, like patent pools, R&D treaties, or prize funds - that allow for any new medicines, diagnostics and vaccines that are developed to be priced affordably from day one.
MSF has been campaigning for the creation of a patent pool, a mechanism to boost access to affordable medicines in the developing world, since 2006. The Medicines Patent Pool was formally launched in July 2010 and promptly received official backing from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) two months later, when the NIH signed a license with the Pool for the patents they hold on the antiretroviral drug darunavir.
Last updated: July 2011