Issue brief |

A Matter of Life and Death: The Role of Patents in Access to Essential Medicines

MSF briefing for the 4th WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar. Includes articles on how generic competition brings down drug prices, TRIPS safeguards in use in developed countries, and why donations won’t solve the access crisis, among others. Ends with recommendations to the WTO members to support a pro-public health interpretation of the TRIPS Agreement.

After more than two years campaigning for improved access to essential medicines for patients in poor countries, MSF’s involvement in patent issues at times still elicits surprise: why does MSF, a medical humanitarian organisation, care about intellectual property rights?

The answer is the same as it was in Seattle in 1999, when MSF first addressed the negotiators of the world’s trade rules at the 3rd WTO ministerial meeting:

We care because our patients in the developing world are dying. They do not have access to the medicines they need, either because they cannot afford them, or because the necessary drugs don’t exist at all. This is an emergency on a global scale: infectious diseases kill more than 14 million people every year.

Some of this suffering could be prevented or alleviated if international trade rules and agreements, such as the TRIPS Agreement (WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), stopped regulating essential medicines as if they were any other consumer product. Medicines aren’t Barbie dolls or CDs – they are a matter of life and death for millions of people. Patents can become obstacles in providing affordable treatment, as the examples highlighted in this document demonstrate. MSF intends to continue fighting to put lives before commercial interests.

The Access Campaign in Doha:

Daniel Berman, MSF, Access to Medicines Campaign

Since Seattle there has been a seismic shift. Two years ago many developing countries felt they were powerless against the will of the wealthy countries and their drug companies. Here in Doha more than 80 countries came together and negotiated in mass. It was this solidarity that led to a strong affirmation that TRIPS can and should be interpreted and implemented in a manner to protect public health.In practical terms it means that countries are not at the mercy of multinationals when they practice price gouging. The threat of punitive action against a country that attempts to address its health needs has been dramatically reduced. With this declaration it is doubtful that a wealthy country would dare file a dispute against a developing country for using one of the safeguards such as compulsory licensing. Now patent holders either offer prices that make their drugs accessible or risk losing their monopoly rights. The victory in Doha is really for people who need or will need access to life-saving or extending medicines.

Ellen 't Hoen, MSF, Access to Medicines Campaign

This declaration is a major step forwards in the quest to ensure access to medicines for all. The text that has been agreed upon now was unthinkable 6 months, 6 weeks, even 6 days ago. It states clearly that there are serious conflicts between the obligations under the TRIPS Agreement and countries need to protect public health including providing access to medicines, it states that countries have the right to take measures to overcome patent barriers to public health and the statement outlines clearly how countries can do this. It is a missed opportunity that this ministerial conference did not offer a solution for countries without production capacity that want to make use of compulsory licensing . But we are confident that this issue will be resolved in the next year in the TRIPS Council. Countries can ensure access to medicines without fear of being dragged into a legal battle. Now its up to governments to use this power to bring down the cost of medicines and increase access to life-saving treatments.