Opinion article |

TRIPS, Pharmaceutical Patents and Access to Essential Medicines: Seattle, Doha and Beyond

Author: Ellen F. M. 't Hoen

The reasons for the lack of access to essential medicines are manifold, but in many cases the high prices of drugs are a barrier to needed treatments. Prohibitive drug prices are often the result of strong intellectual property protection. Governments in developing countries that attempt to bring the price of medicines down have come under pressure from industrialized countries and the multinational pharmaceutical industry.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS) sets out the minimum standards for the protection of intellectual property, including patents for pharmaceuticals. While TRIPS does offer safeguards to remedy negative effects of patent protection or patent abuse, in practice it is unclear whether and how countries can make use of these safeguards when patents increasingly present barriers to medicine access.

Public health advocates welcomed the Doha Declaration as an important achievement because it gave primacy to public health over private intellectual property, and clarified WTO Members' rights to use TRIPS safeguards. But the Doha Declaration did not solve all of the problems associated with intellectual property protection and public health. The recent failure at the WTO to resolve the outstanding issue to ensure production and export of generic medicines to countries that do not produce may even indicate that the optimism felt at Doha was premature.

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