Seven years on

Geneva - As the World Trade Organization's TRIPS Council meets in Geneva today to discuss how to improve a system intended to help countries without medicines manufacturing capacity get access to affordable medicines, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urges governments to revise an agreement that has proven entirely ineffective and unworkable.

"The August 30 Decision was supposed to help countries without drug manufacturing capacity access affordable medicines - but the system is so complicated that seven years on, we see that virtually nobody has been able to benefit from it," said Michelle Childs, Director of Policy Advocacy at MSF's Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines.  "MSF's experience shows that the system is so cumbersome and full of red tape for both parties that want to export and import medicines, that it acts as a major disincentive."

When a medicine is patented, a country has the right under international trade rules to issue a compulsory license to overcome the patent, in order to begin production and ensure access to more affordable medicines for its population.  But many countries do not have the ability to make their own medicines.  

In order for them to be able to access affordable medicines from elsewhere, the WTO adopted a decision on August 30, 2003, that allows a country with manufacturing capacity to issue a compulsory license in order to export a medicine to a country that does not have that capacity. But the system adds complex and unnecessary burdens on developing countries with no manufacturing capacity, and makes the system unworkable.

MSF attempted to test the feasibility of the system and worked for several years to encourage a Canadian generic company to develop a patented AIDS medicine for MSF to use in its projects.  MSF ultimately had to withdraw from the process because of the considerable delays. Seven years on, a compulsory license for export has been issued only once, for a drug that was exported from Canada to Rwanda in 2008.

"All of the big generic producing countries are now granting patents on medicines, so we desperately need to see a solution for countries that will need to rely on this mechanism to access essential medicines. It's about time governments acted on the fact that what they have put in place is a failure," added Childs.