Laws for Drug Patents Must Look to Plight of Poor

Cape Times (South Africa), March 29, 2007 | Go to article overview

Laws for Drug Patents Must Look to Plight of Poor


BYLINE: David Dickson

Pressure is growing for a major shift in international intellectual property rules so the needs of the poor are addressed.

For the last two years, members of the World Intellectual Property Organisation have been discussing, somewhat acrimoniously, the so-called development agenda. This was initially proposed by a group of developing countries that believed the existing stance on intellectual property rights was unduly influenced by powerful companies seeking to strengthen their global position.

Last month there was a significant breakthrough in these discussions when important new principles were agreed. These included taking into account different levels of development, preserving a balance between costs and benefits in setting new intellectual property right rules, and the importance of preserving the public domain of knowledge.

Strong pro-business patent legislation and guidelines were in agreements such as the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), something that countries wanting to join or stay in the World Trade Organisation must accept. Such agreements were promoted as an essential component of efforts to promote economic development. This was irrespective of whether countries were rich or poor.

But patent rules have proved to be an Achilles heel, the weakness in globalisation. A series of widely publicised cases have highlighted the social injustices. These range from the appropriation of indigenous knowledge by multinational companies to the way that patents allow pharmaceutical companies to price essential medicines out of the reach of the poor.

All this means that public support for a shift in intellectual property rights has never been stronger. The challenge lies in ensuring that any new rules continue to encourage a steady flow of technological innovations while shifting the balance of who benefits from such innovation more clearly toward the poor.

In a recent court case, Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis appealed against the Indian government’s decision not to extend its patent for an anti-cancer treatment called Gleevec.

The company argues that significant improvements to the drug warrant extending the life of the patent.

Novartis says strong patent protection is essential to encourage private investment in research for new drugs. The activist group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) is opposing the Novartis appeal. …

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