How strong patent protection affects access to medicinesPatentstrade and healthThe price of drugsWhat is a patent?A patent is a privilege granted by agovernment, allowing the holder to excludeothers from making, using and selling aninvention. Patents provide the holder withan effective monopoly on a particularproduct or production process. Theseprivileges apply in the countries where theyare granted for a limited period (theminimum is now 20 years). In order toprevent patents from harming the publicinterest, governments retain the right toover-ride them in certain circumstances(using a ‘compulsory licence’).The patent system is meant to provideincentives for the research and innovationswhich society might need. However, thereis debate about whether the patent systemis the most effective way to achieve this.Many patent-based industries base muchof their research on previous public sectorinnovation, fail to address research needsin areas where there is no market, usepatents to block new research andcompetition and, especially inpharmaceuticals, find ways to extend theprivilege beyond 20 years.Global rules on trade and patentsmake medicines much more expensivefor many people who need them. Inpoor countries, the difference in pricecan be a matter of life or death.Patented drugs generally cost much morethan unpatented ‘generic’ equivalents.Generic drugs are otherwise identical tothe original brand name version. Manydeveloping countries want to make orimport generic medicines.Pharmaceutical companies owningpatents on drugs have tried to limit theextent of generic medicine production.They have convinced developed countrygovernments to push for strongerprotection for patented drugs whennegotiating trade deals with poorercountries. Resulting global trade rulesoften reflect the narrowly definedinterests of a few patent-dependantindustries.One international trade deal isparticularly important: the Agreement onTrade-Related Aspects of IntellectualProperty Rights (TRIPS). This accord,which is overseen by the World TradeOrganisation (WTO), requires WTOMember countries to grant patents onpharmaceutical products. Before TRIPS,more than 50 countries did not do so.Developing countries have argued thatTRIPS is fundamentally unbalanced, asit fails to take into account theirconcerns.Increasingly, rich countries are pushingtheir poorer trading partners to adoptmore stringent rules than those in TRIPS.Bilateral and regional trade deals nowoften contain burdensome requirementson patents which poor countries mustagree to if they want to gain access tomarkets in developed countries. Suchdeals could remove the limited flexibilitydeveloping countries have to tailor theirlaws to their needs within TRIPS rules.The US challenge to BrazilBrazil has received international recognition for its HIV/AIDS treatmentprogramme, which provides free drugs under the national health system.In 2001, the USA threatened to take Brazil to the WTO dispute settlementprocess over its patent laws - potentially jeopardising the drug distributionscheme.Brazilian law requires the patent holder to manufacture the product in Brazil.If not, the government can issue a compulsory licence to another producer,unless local production is not feasible. Lower cost generic HIV/AIDS drugsare vital for the health care programmes.Public outcry led the US government to drop the case after negotiations withBrazil.