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Intellectual Property rights- a barrier to universal healthcare

  • 28 April, 2021

  • 8 Min Read

Intellectual Property rights- a barrier to universal healthcare


  • The intellectual property rules have served as a lethal barrier to the right to access healthcare
  • The existing global regime governs the monopoly rights over the production and distribution of life-saving drugs.

Request for waiver

  • On October 2 last year, India and South Africa submitted a joint petition to the World Trade Organization (WTO), requesting a temporary suspension of rules under the 1995 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
  • A waiver was sought to the extent for the containment and treatment of COVID-19.
    • As we now know, quick and efficient vaccination is the surest route to achieving global herd immunity against the virus.
    • Only with the waiver, the countries will be in a position, among other things, to facilitate a free exchange of know-how and technology surrounding the production of vaccines.
  • The request for a waiver has, since, found support from more than 100 nations.
  • But a small group of states — the U.S., the European Union, the U.K. and Canada among them — continues to block the move.
    • Their reluctance comes despite these countries having already secured the majority of available vaccines, with the stocks that they hold far exceeding the amounts necessary to inoculate the whole of their populations.
  • Their decision is all the more galling when one considers the fact that for the rest of the world mass immunisation is a distant dream.
  • Reports suggest that for most poor countries it would take until at least 2024 before widespread vaccination is achieved.

About patent laws:

  • A patent is a conferral by the state of an exclusive right to make, use and sell an inventive product or process.
  • Patent laws are usually justified on three distinct grounds:
    • on the idea that people have something of a natural and moral right to claim control over their inventions;
    • on the utilitarian premise that exclusive licenses promote invention and therefore benefit society as a whole; and
    • on the belief that individuals must be allowed to benefit from the fruits of their labour and merit, that when a person toils to produce an object, the toil and the object become inseparable.
  • Each of these justifications has long been a matter of contest, especially in the application of claims of monopoly over pharmaceutical drugs and technologies.

A new world order

  • The colonial-era laws that the country inherited expressly allowed for pharmaceutical patents.
  • But in 1959, a committee chaired by Justice N. Rajagopala Ayyangar objected to this on ethical grounds.
    • It noted that access to drugs at affordable prices suffered severely on account of the existing regime.
    • The committee found that foreign corporations used patents, and injunctions secured from courts, to suppress competition from Indian entities, and thus, medicines were priced at exorbitant rates.
    • To counter this trend, the committee suggested, and Parliament put this into law through the Patents Act, 1970, that monopolies over pharmaceutical drugs be altogether removed, with protections offered only over claims to processes.

Advantages of Patents Act,1970

  • It allowed generic manufacturers in India to grow.
  • As a result, life-saving drugs were made available to people at more affordable prices.
  • The ink had barely dried on the new law, though, when negotiations had begun to create a WTO that would write into its constitution a binding set of rules governing intellectual property by 1995.
  • In the proposal’s vision, countries which fail to subscribe to the common laws prescribed by the WTO would be barred from entry into the global trading circuit.
  • It was believed that a threat of sanctions, to be enforced through a dispute resolution mechanism, would dissuade states from reneging on their promises.

Case Study: during the AIDS pandemic in 1990s

  • The new world order became quickly apparent when drugs that reduced AIDS deaths in developed nations were placed out of reach for the rest of the world.
  • It was only when Indian companies began to manufacture generic versions of these medicines, which was made possible because obligations under TRIPS hadn’t yet kicked in against India, that the prices came down.

Points to be considered for promotion of R&D

  • Unless corporations are rewarded for their inventions, they would be unable to recoup amounts invested by them in research and development.
  • Without the right to monopolise production there will be no incentive to innovate.

Both of these claims have been refuted time and again.

But, IPR be imposed on a public-funded project

  • Most recently, it has been reported that the technology involved in producing the Moderna vaccine in the U.S. emanated from basic research conducted by the National Institutes of Health, a federal government agency, and other publicly funded universities and organisations.
  • Similarly, public money accounted for more than 97% of the funding for the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
  • Big pharma has never been forthright about the quantum of monies funnelled by it into research and development.
  • It’s also been clear for some time now that its research is usually driven toward diseases that afflict people in the developed world.
  • Therefore, the claim that the removal of patents would somehow invade on a company’s ability to recoup costs is not true.

What can be the alternative to the present patent regime?

  • The economist Joseph Stiglitz is one of many who has proposed a prize fund for medical research in place of patents.
  • A system that replaces patents with prizes will be “more efficient and more equitable”, in that incentives for research will flow from public funds while ensuring that the biases associated with monopolies are removed.


  • The unequal vaccine policy put in place by the Indian state is indefensible.
  • But at the same time, we cannot overlook the need for global collective action.
  • The pandemic has demonstrated to us just how iniquitous the existing world order is.


Source: TH


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