There has been much discussion recently about the World Trade Organisation (WTO) derogation of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 medicines under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). But what is TRIPS and why is it so important?
What is TRIPS?
The World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is a comprehensive international agreement dating from 1995 that establishes minimum intellectual property (IP) protections. Signed by the vast majority of WTO member countries, TRIPS provides a basic global floor for IP standards. TRIPS seeks to ensure that IP is protected and enforced across borders and that bad actors do not get a free ride on innovators’ investments. Least-developed countries are exempt from meeting most substantive TRIPS obligations, while countries seeking to promote and lead innovation, such as the United States, provide IP protections beyond the minimum requirements of TRIPS.
Why is the TRIPS agreement important?
TRIPS laid the foundation for the policy environment that has propelled the world’s technological advancement over the last three decades. TRIPS is especially important for innovative industries, such as the biopharmaceutical industry, that rely on strong IP protections to incentivize the research, development and manufacturing of cutting-edge technologies. Without the strong IP protections provided by TRIPS, modern medical innovation — including vaccines and therapies to combat COVID-19 — would be significantly stymied, and many of the treatments and cures benefiting patients in countries throughout the world today would not exist.
Why have world leaders been discussing TRIPS recently?
Despite the importance of the TRIPS agreement, WTO member states recently agreed to suspend certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement related to compulsory licensing. This unnecessary and potentially dangerous decision is based on the false assumption that suspending patent protection will lead to more equitable access to vaccines, even though the IPRs defined by TRIPS have made the development of vaccines possible in the first place and there was or still is a global surplus of vaccines. Global policymakers are currently talking about extending the WTO decision to relax patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines to COVID-19 therapeutics and diagnostics. This expansion would be another harmful political decision that would compromise global public health and preparedness, undercut innovation and send our research and manufacturing jobs abroad.
How should policymakers address medicine access, if not by waiving rights through TRIPS?
Public health experts agree that the real barriers to global access to COVID-19 vaccines and therapies are last-mile distribution and administration challenges — such as cold storage, transportation and health workforce barriers. While biopharmaceutical manufacturers stand ready to partner with governments and global institutions to address these challenges, industry remains focused on its core expertise: researching, developing and manufacturing innovative medicines. With more than enough doses of vaccines and treatments for the world, policymakers should reject any expansion of the TRIPS waiver and instead focus on solving these distribution and administration challenges.
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