With end of TRIPS, aid groups see access to cheap drugs closing

    Pills. Photo by: Patricia Yliniemi

    Civil society groups are rallying efforts to extend a deal that is seen to give the world’s poorest countries access to cheap drugs.

    On March 5-6, the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Council of the World Trade Organization will meet in Geneva to seal the fate of the proposal lengthening the TRIPS transition period for the 49 least-developed countries. The transition period, set to expire July 2013, exempts LDCs from the terms of the TRIPS agreement on patents and test data protection for pharmaceuticals.

    The Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS and U.N. Development Program this week backed the proposal by releasing a new brief that urges WTO members to mull the health, economic and development benefits of an extension.

    In the brief, UNAIDS and UNDP said the transition period must be extended since LDCs continue to have special needs and requirements for social and economic development. Failure to extend the transition period, they added, could block LDCs’ access to vital lifesaving antiretroviral treatment and other medicines.

    Other groups have voiced their support for the proposal. A recent letter signed by 376 international networks and organizations demanded that the TRIPS Council unconditionally give LDCs a transition period until the time that they have ceased to become underdeveloped.

    Leading medical humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres, a signatory to the letter, stressed the need to extend LDCs’ transition period.

    “LDCs are by definition poor countries and socio-economic conditions in those countries have placed them in disadvantaged situation,” said Aziz ur Rehman, intellectual property advisor at MSF, in an interview with Devex.

    “If this transition period is not extended then LDCs will be expected to comply with TRIPS obligations and they simply do not have resources to do so,” he added. “In the area of pharmaceuticals it will lead to massive patenting of drugs resulting in higher prices and erosion of generic competition.”

    Rehman also decried the impact a nonextension could have on medical assistance for beneficiaries in LDCs.

    “If LDCs are required to comply with the TRIPS obligations then our ability to import and use generic drugs will be seriously compromised due to stringent patent laws,” he said.

    MSF and other humanitarian groups relying on cheap, quality generic drugs for distribution to their beneficiaries in LDCs may expect a surge in costs, as patent protection under TRIPS is expected to do away with generics.

    Rehman is hopeful that the extension will happen but cannot predict any outcome at this stage.

    The TRIPS agreement, which came into life in 1995, is a contract among WTO members to apply common standards in the way they pass and enforce their patent laws, including that for medicines. A 10-year exemption from the terms of the agreement was first given to LDCs until December 2005, followed by a second exemption, which is scheduled to expire in July 2013.

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    About the author

    • Johanna Morden

      Johanna Morden is a community development worker by training and a global development journalist by profession. As a former Devex staff writer based in Manila, she covered the Asian Development Bank as well as Asia-Pacific's aid community at large. Johanna has written for a variety of international publications, covering social issues, disasters, government, ICT, business, and the law.