Safeguarding IP rights is key to defeating COVID-19

COVID-19 has exposed our unpreparedness for a crisis of global scope. As much as globalisation is partly to blame for the virus’ speedy expansion, it is also thanks to the interconnectedness of our world that we have been able to preserve international trade – despite a bundle of constraints and cries for protectionism – during these tough times. In particular, that has to do with exports of essential medical devices such as masks, ventilators, personal protective equipment. The shortages experienced by many countries have triggered an intergovernmental discussion on the scope of compulsory licencing and IP protection covered by The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). 

As a global consumer advocacy group, we at the Consumer Choice Center are hereby sharing our perspective on the matter in the hope to contribute to this timely debate. 

The TRIPS agreement is an integral part of the World Trade Organisation’s intellectual property legal base. Among other things, the agreement whose primary aim is to safeguard intellectual property rights, also includes provisions on compulsory licencing, or use of subject matter of a patent without the authorisation of the right holder (Article 31). Essentially, this means that “in the case of a national emergency or other circumstances of extreme urgency or in cases of public non-commercial use,” a Member government may allow someone else to produce a patented product or process without the consent of the patent owner. 

Whereas, under normal circumstances, the person or company applying for a licence must have first attempted, unsuccessfully, to obtain a voluntary licence from the right holder on reasonable commercial terms (Article 31b). However, there is no need to try for a voluntary licence first under TRIPS flexibilities.

TRIPS flexibilities, therefore, allow countries to override global IP rules to mitigate the damage caused by an emergency and have been mainly applied where pharmaceuticals have been concerned. 

In July, South Africa issued a communication titled “Beyond Access to Medicines and Medical Technologies Towards a More Holistic Approach to TRIPS Flexibilities.”  It was pointed out that the COVID-19 response required looking beyond patents towards a more “integrated approach to TRIPS flexibilities that include other various types of intellectual property (IP) rights including copyrights, industrial designs and trade secrets” (IP/C/W/666). As such, the recommendations submitted by South Africa are cross-field as they also touch upon the production and distribution of essential medical devices such as masks, ventilators, personal protective equipment.

Though proposed out of the noble motives, South African communication is ignorant of the need to protect IP rights instead of eroding them. Opponents of intellectual property rights often make the mistake of taking innovation for granted thereby turning a blind eye to the driving force of every kind of entrepreneurship: economic incentives. Patents and various other forms of intellectual property are not biased towards the inventor. On the contrary, they ensure that companies can continue to innovate and deliver on their products to consumers. 

The short-term result of eroding intellectual property rights would be increased access to innovations, but in the long-term, there would be no innovation. With the second wave of coronavirus on the way putting brakes on the economic recovery, it is not something we can afford.

In fact, we need to stay as firm as ever in our defence of intellectual property rights if we want to defeat coronavirus and many more diseases. Patients who may one day be diagnosed with incurable diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Cystic Fibrosis, Diabetes, or HIV/AIDS should benefit from the chance that a cure will become available, and protecting IP is the only way to give them that chance. If we act boldly now and weaken intellectual property rights even further – and expand the scope of TRIPS flexibilities – we will cause the damage that will be hardly reversible, and the post-pandemic world will have to foot the bill.

As the former Czech Prime Minister, Jan Fischer pointed out, “Patents and other intellectual property protections enshrine the incentives that compel drug companies to take such extraordinary risks. By temporarily barring copycat products, the rules give innovators an opportunity to try and recoup their huge development costs. A substantial portion of the revenues achieved from the sale of those innovative drugs are dedicated to fund new projects, and enable the pursuit of path-breaking R&D in the first place.”

If we want more prosperity for all, we need to protect intellectual property rights. TRIPS flexibilities, and the call to extend their scope beyond patens, in particular, are an attempt to erode IP, and should be seen for what they really are: a threat to our economic recovery from COVID-19 and future innovation.

By Maria Chaplia, European Affairs Associate at the Consumer Choice Center

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