The WTO, Pharmaceutical Patents and Development

the Finnish Institute of International Affairs · 02.02.2015 10:00 - 12:00

While references to a ”North-South” divide often seem dated, one area with intense conflict along these lines remains global health, and in particular issues related to pharmaceutical patents. This lecture will shed light on these enduring sources of conflict. It will explain why pharmaceutical patents are the subject of so much conflict, looking in detail at the history of pharmaceutical patenting in developed and developing countries, explaining how rules on patents became integrated into the international trade system with the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The lecture discusses the politics of TRIPS implementation in developing countries, drawing attention to the important transitional dimensions: while we are no longer living in the pre-TRIPS world of pharmaceuticals not being patented in developing countries, we are not yet living fully in the TRIPS-inspired world of universal pharmaceutical patenting. Given this new global landscape, what are the challenges – immediate and on the horizon – that the TRIPS agreement poses for global health? This question is addressed with reference to the treatment of infectious diseases (e.g. HIV/AIDS), non-infectious chronic diseases (e.g. cancer, hypertension), and ”neglected” tropical diseases.
Speaker: Kenneth Shadlen, Professor of Development Studies, London School of Economics

Dr. Shadlen is Professor of Development Studies at the London School of Economics, Associate Fellow at the Institute of the Americas, University College London, and Senior Research Fellow at the Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University. He is also Managing Editor of the Journal of Development Studies. 

Comments: Meri Koivusalo, Senior Researcher, National Institute for Health and Welfare
Dr. Koivusalo is Senior Researcher in the National Institute for Health and Welfare and Docent in international health policy at the University of Tampere. She has participated in international health policy processes concerning health, trade and innovation policy issues as an expert for the World Health Organization as well as published widely on the links between health and trade issues.
Chair: Mikael Wigell, Senior Research Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Summary of the seminar: 

The seminar was opened by its chair Dr Mikael Wigell who welcomed the speakers and audience and stressed the importance of the topic.

Keynote speaker Prof. Kenneth Shadlen dealt in his presentation with the issue of
pharmaceutical patents, in particular. He explained how the rules on patents are nowadays integrated into the international trade system through the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). However, as to the agreement’s implementation there is cross-national variation wherefore pharmaceutical patents have been introduced differently over time. Here, NGO activism together with the Doha Declaration played an important part in making sure patents did not become a barrier for acquiring cheap generic drugs. India, for instance, did not introduce pharmaceutical patents until 2005, which allowed it to develop an industry for generics and to become the ”pharmacist of the developing world”. The supply of cheap medicines from India made possible the expanded access to HIV/AIDS antiretroviral treatment throughout the developing world. However, now that newer medicines are patented also in India the situation is becoming challenging. Prof. Shadlen stressed how the world is moving towards ”quasi-universal” pharmaceutical patenting, meaning that whereas not all drugs will be patented in all countries, eventually most drugs will be patented in countries with production capacities.

Dr Meri Koivusalo
gave her comments on the presentation of Prof. Shadlen from an international health policy perspective. She contemplated the connections of TRIPS, patents and development and highlighted that patents are nowadays granted for new and effective treatments, such as HIV/AIDS and cancer medicines. She also noted that the poorest countries are still exempt from TRIPS and this has implications for development aid.

According to Dr Koivusalo, TRIPS generally has effects on the multilateral health policy, so that, for example, in global health policy funding patterns are shifting and focusing more on diseases and medicines. She also explained how different interests exist in the commercial and public sectors. Public policies may help correct for weakening commercial incentives to develop certain vital medicines. Dr Koivusalo also noted that there are trade policy challenges related to pharmaceutical patenting – EU is potentially going backwards in its policies relating to pharmaceutical patenting and also TTIP (The Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership ) between USA and EU would have global effects on the issue.