Drug Patents Under The Spotlight

Geneva, 22 May 2003 - A few days before the 192 countries at the World Health Assembly (WHA) discuss "intellectual property rights, innovation and public health" (provisional agenda item 14.9), MSF is releasing a report setting straight common misconceptions about patents and highlighting country efforts to overcome patent obstacles to accessing life-saving medicines.

"Patents are social policy tools," explains Ellen 't Hoen, MSF Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. "When patents are issued for a method of swinging sideways on a swing, no-one's life is in the balance. But when it comes to pharmaceuticals, intellectual property must be weighed against the needs of people whose lives depend on medicines."

Most developing countries' patent laws are still modelled on developed country systems. But in developed countries, patents are regularly challenged in court and in some cases deemed invalid. In developing countries, the practice of contesting patents has not been established. As a result invalid patents remain in place.

"Developing countries should not hesitate to check and challenge the validity of patents," says Ellen 't Hoen. "This is already beginning to happen in some countries, such as Kenya and Thailand."

An example cited in the report is the case of Bristol-Myers Squibb's (BMS) ARV ddI. In one of the few cases of a patent being contested in a developing country, the Thai Central Intellectual Property and International Trade Court ruled to throw out the patent on a particular dosage of the drug. The Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health was cited in the court's brief.

The report also makes public all the information MSF has gathered on 18 drugs in 29 countries so that Ministries of Health and non-profit purchasers can benefit from the information, and not be bullied into buying more expensive drugs when it's not necessary.

MSF appeals to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to continue this work by setting up a user-friendly, public database providing comprehensive and transparent data on pharmaceutical patents of key medicines. This information should be accompanied by clear advice to countries on how to overcome patent barriers to medicines, and with technical assistance in doing so.