Economic Profit vs. Access to Medicines: Where are our international trade priorities today?

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Photo courtesy of Toronto Star, 2003

The 1994, the World Trade Organization passed the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) which set international standards on the protection of intellectual property. While this was a great win for many industries who have struggled to protect their IP and maintain profits, this was a harsh blow for public health. The TRIPS agreement strengthened the patent protection of the dominating pharmaceutical industry and made it even more difficult for low and middle income countries to afford lifesaving drugs for HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. Under the TRIPS agreement, countries that decide to manufacture drugs without the permission of patent holders (compulsory licensing) can only do so during “national emergencies”. In addition, these countries are required to produce the drugs locally, even if they do not that the infrastructure or capacity to do so. They are not allowed to import drugs from neighboring countries at lower prices (parallel import).

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Photo: Protest in Hong-Kong against WTO on December 2005. Courtesy of fuzheado flickr.

Have we as a society decided that economic profit is more important than the health of individuals? Countries like South Africa and Brazil have taken steps to say no. In 1997, South Africa allowed for parallel importation of patented medicines in their Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act No. 90 and Brazil has managed to negotiate down prices of drugs through threats of compulsory licensing. In today’s growing globalization, countries are realizing that they can no longer treat healthcare as just another business venture. Repeal of the compulsory licensing and parallel import limitations in the TRIPS agreement is the first step towards placing healthcare above economic profits. This will allow developing countries a chance to focus on developing their own pharmaceutical industries and avoid the need to use compulsory licensing all together.

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