As the World Trade Organization meeting opens in Hong Kong, the international medical relief organization Doctors Without Borders says the WTO's rules on patent protection are squeezing access to life-saving drugs for millions of poor people.
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning relief group Doctors Without Borders warned Tuesday that WTO rules on intellectual property rights make life-saving drugs too expensive for poorer nations.
WTO members are required to protect patents on medicines under the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights or TRIPS.
Until this year, countries like India did not protect medicine patents and local manufacturers were able to make and export copies of essential drugs, such as those used to treat HIV/AIDS, more cheaply than patent holders, which are mostly Western pharmaceutical companies. But Indian manufacturers can no longer make generic copies of newly developed medicines.
Ellen 't Hoen, a director of the campaign for access to essential medicines at Doctors Without Borders, says this is a setback for people with HIV/AIDS, who need newer drugs. The group, also known as MSF, says these "second-line" anti-retroviral drugs are now nearly 30 times more expensive than the most affordable of the older drugs.
"That means that in all these countries one company has the monopoly to sell and make the drug available. Before WTO rules, it was possible in WTO countries for local manufacturers to produce their own versions of newer medicines and that always led to a downward effect on prices," she said. "The newer medicines - and I'm talking about medicines that have been developed since 1995 - are almost all priced out reach of people in developing countries."
The TRIPS rules allow governments to grant licenses to produce drugs already covered by patents, in the interests of protecting public health. But drugs produced under this system are meant to meet domestic needs and cannot be exported.
The MSF's Dr. Karim Laouabdia says this leaves many African countries at a disadvantage. Nearly 26 million people are living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.
"The problem was how to have drugs in a country which does not produce drugs," he said. "It's easier for India because they have a huge pharmaceutical industry to produce for their own consumption but it is impossible in any country in Africa except in South Africa or Kenya."
Ms. Hoen also says some countries are hesitant to exercise the right to grant licenses to produce patented drugs for fear Western trading partners will retaliate in other product areas.
Pharmaceutical companies have pledged to give discounts to developing countries. But Ms. Hoen says so far such discounts have not been enough and have not covered newer medicines.