Monday, January 23, 2017

WTO IP rules amended to ease poor countries’ access to affordable medicines

An amendment to the agreement on intellectual property (IP) entered into force today securing for developing countries a legal pathway to access affordable medicines under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
The amendment to the WTO Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement marks the first time since the organization opened its doors in 1995 that WTO accords have been amended.
The WTO secretariat has received in recent days notifications from five members that they have ratified the protocol amending the WTO TRIPS Agreement. These notifications — from Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Liechtenstein, the United Arab Emirates and Viet Nam — brought to two-thirds the number of WTO members which have now ratified the amendment. The two-thirds threshold was needed to formally bring the amendment into the TRIPS Agreement.  
Members took the decision to amend the TRIPS Agreement specifically to adapt the rules of the global trading system to the public health needs of people in poor countries. This action follows repeated calls from the multilateral system for acceptance of the amendment, most recently by the United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS in June 2016.
"This is an extremely important amendment," said WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo "It gives legal certainty that generic medicines can be exported at reasonable prices to satisfy the needs of countries with no pharmaceutical production capacity, or those with limited capacity," he said, adding, "By doing so, it helps the most vulnerable access the drugs that meet their needs, helping to deal with diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria, as well as other epidemics. I am delighted that WTO members have now followed through on their commitment and brought this important measure into force."
In video statements, some of the key players also shared their thoughts on the TRIPS amendment.
Unanimously adopted by WTO members in 2005, the protocol amending the TRIPS Agreement makes permanent a mechanism to ease poorer WTO members’ access to affordable generic medicines produced in other countries. The amendment empowers importing developing and least-developed countries (LDC) facing public health problems and lacking the capacity to produce drugs generically to seek such medicines from third country producers under 'compulsory licensing' arrangements.
Normally, most medicines produced under compulsory licences can only be provided to the domestic market in the country where they are produced. This amendment allows exporting countries to grant compulsory licences to generic suppliers exclusively for the purpose of manufacturing and exporting needed medicines to countries lacking production capacity.
"As important as trade policy is, health and well-being must take precedence,” said Kenya’s foreign minister, who chaired the WTO General Council at the time when the amendment was approved in December 2005, Amina Mohamed. “WTO members recognise this and have proven how seriously they take health issues by ratifying and putting into force an amendment to WTO rules which will facilitate access to essential medicines in low income countries.”
The amendment provides a secure and sustained legal basis for both potential exporters and importers to adopt legislation and establish the means needed to allow countries with limited or no production capacity to import affordable generics from countries where pharmaceuticals are patented. More and more WTO members are taking practical steps to implement the system in their laws. The bulk of global medicine exports is covered by laws enabling exports under this system, opening up new options for potential beneficiaries to access a wider range of potential suppliers and enabling new, innovative procurement strategies.
Flexibilities such as compulsory licensing are written into the TRIPS Agreement, governments can issue compulsory licences to allow companies to make a patented product or use a patented process under licence without the consent of the patent owner, but only under certain conditions aimed at safeguarding the legitimate interests of the patent holder.
Some governments were unsure of how these flexibilities would be interpreted, and how far their right to use them would be respected. At the Doha Ministerial Conference in November 2001, WTO members struck a deal which clarified the accords and provided governments in the developing world with greater clarity and certainty that protection of patents does not and should not prevent members from taking measures to protect public health.
But one more element was needed, how to guarantee that countries lacking the capacity to produce generic drugs could still procure them affordably. Paragraph 6 of the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health recognised that "WTO members with insufficient or no manufacturing capacities in the pharmaceutical sector could face difficulties in making effective use of compulsory licensing under the TRIPS Agreement”, and instructed the Council for TRIPS to find an expeditious solution to this problem.
In August 2003, WTO members decided to remove an important obstacle to affordable drug imports by waiving the limitation in the TRIPS Agreement to predominantly supply the local market. The decision says that if the importing country could not secure access to needed medicines at affordable prices, these medicines could be produced under compulsory licence by drug makers in third countries, and be imported to poorer countries unable to manufacture the medicines themselves.
Two years later, WTO members agreed on December 6, 2005 to permanently incorporate the 2003 waiver decision into the TRIPS Agreement subject to the acceptance of two-thirds of WTO members. Through the entry into force of the amendment, the flexibility to protect public health becomes an integral part of the TRIPS Agreement.

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