WTO, WHO, WIPO Examine Intersection of Public Health, Intellectual Property, Trade
More coherence is needed between public health, intellectual property (IP), and trade policies in order to advance innovation and improve access to medicines, according to a joint report released by the WTO, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) on Tuesday.
The study, entitled "Promoting Access to Medical Technologies and Innovation: Intersections between Public Health, Intellectual Property, and Trade," was designed to bring together the three organisations' respective areas of expertise with the goal of better informing policy-making decisions, especially in developing countries.
Coherence is key, WTO, WIPO, WHO chiefs say
In recent years, the role of the IP system in fostering medical innovation and its potential impact on medicines' availability have been the subject of extensive discussions - and controversy - at the different organisations.
"The IP system is not an isolated specialist domain, nor yet a monolithic barrier to public health; instead, IP is an element of a complex set of policy tools required to resolve global problems," WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy explained.
Coherence between health policies, IP rules, and trade policy is therefore "key" toward ensuring that sustainable solutions are found for issues involving access to medicines and medical technologies, the WTO chief added. Along with medicines, medical technologies can also include vaccines and medical devices.
Indeed, the mission of IP is to find an equilibrium point among all interests that surround the process of knowledge production and distribution, as well as "translating intellectual assets into productive assets," WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry told the audience.
Developed countries have traditionally argued that making patent laws less stringent could hinder innovation on developing medicines and medical technologies; meanwhile, developing countries have long called for more flexibilities and exceptions to have more policy options available in this area.
The study therefore calls for appropriate and creative patent licensing strategies to ensure that drugs and medical technologies are made both affordable and available in poorer countries. While the study also points out the importance of the patent system for the pharmaceutical sector, it identifies alternative incentive mechanisms that seek to enable the development of new products for treating neglected diseases.
The organisations also list various flexibilities aimed at safeguarding the public interest that are already available in the international IP regime. In this regard, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan indicated the need to discuss ways to promote drug availability for treating non-communicable diseases - such as anti-cancer medicines - specifically mentioning the recent trend of issuing compulsory licenses to allow the production of life-saving generics. Chan stressed that generics must be brought quickly into the market, as delaying their entry "hurts public health."
She also suggested that attention should be given to the request by least developed countries (LDCs) to extend the transition period for applying the WTO's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which is set to expire in July 2013. (See Bridges Weekly, 14 November 2012)
"I fully respect the sovereignty of the multilateral systems in WTO and WIPO. From a public health perspective, an extension of the transition period is worth consideration," Chan said.
Impact of trade policies on access to medicines
The study also highlights trends in trade of health-related products, and how certain trade policies can help or hinder access to medicines. For instance, high tariffs in some countries can have negative implications for this area.
The study also considers competition and procurement policies that could be beneficial in promoting innovation and availability of medical technologies. For instance, competition policies "can serve as a corrective tool if and when IP rights hinder competition and thus constitute a potential barrier to innovation and access."
With regard to procurement policies, the study indicates that open and competitive tendering - such as what the WTO's plurilateral Government Procurement Agreement aims to ensure among its parties - is particularly important in increasing access to medical technologies at a time when governments are facing intense budget constraints.