Understanding India’s stand on IPR at the WTO

Thu Jul 7, 2022

With WTO countries making progress on the patent waiver for covid vaccines last week,Let's examine how  crucial it is to amend the WTO’s IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) norms in the post-pandemic world, keeping in mind the need for vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.

What do WTO’s IPR norms stipulate?

The Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) introduced patent rules into the trading system during the 1986-94 Uruguay round of discussions in the run up to the establishment of the WTO. It shifted the focus from ‘process patent’ to ‘product patent’ after including intellectual property rights in the rules of trade. IPR primarily covers copyrights and rights related to industrial property, i.e inventions (protected by patents), industrial designs and trade secrets. While IPR promotes innovation, it can also lead to higher costs and limited availability of the product.

What are its implications?

The pandemic showed that intellectual property requirements can affect access to medicines. In times of a global epidemic or widespread disease outbreak, this can prove fatal. Countries, worldwide, especially developing and least developed countries, faced shortages of pandemic-related medicines, especially vaccines as only a few patent holders could manufacture them. For example, while there is no scarcity of covid vaccines today, in April 2021, there were only two manufacturers of the vaccine in India with a production capacity of 80-90 million doses of the vaccine per month.

What was the proposal at the Ministerial meeting?

In response to a shortage of vaccines and other pandemic-related medicines, India, South Africa and 63 other countries demanded relaxation of IPR provisions covering vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to help augment the supply of medicines and kits with expanded manufacturing capacity i.e. beyond the original inventor.

Why was there a deadlock?

Developed countries, originally responsible for pushing IPR as a integral trade agenda, might have been apprehensive that companies other than the patent holders would start manufacturing vaccines, earning huge profits without incurring any R&D costs. The counter view is that the profits of a few manufacturers of medicines cannot be allowed to prevail over the global good and a decision to waive IPR rights today can help the poorest deal with any such health crisis that might arise in future.

What could be the way out?

Dilution of IPR norms could be limited to only crucial medicines and vaccines related to the pandemic and for a temporary period. Non-patent holders may be limited to domestic manufacturing. Exports, if necessary, could be permitted by sharing R & D cost and profits with the patent holder. The agreement signed last week gives developing countries the right to make and export covid vaccines without the consent of the patent holder for a five-year period.

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