Compulsory Licensing and Health Law

Nolan Hudalla, MJLST Staffer

In her articleA Public Health Imperative: The Need for Meaningful Change in the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s Intellectual Property Chapter, Roma Patel discusses the benefits that TRIPS “flexibilities” provide to the pharmaceutical markets in developing nations. Specific to this discussion, Ms. Patel notes that malaria is a permissible reason for a country to declare a “national emergency” or “circumstance of extreme urgency” under TRIPS. Such a declaration would allow a nation to utilize the TRIPS compulsory licensing provision. This permits “a government to allow the sale and manufacture of patented medicine without the patent holder’s consent.” With the recent development of aviable malaria vaccine, what can we expect the impact of this provision to be? In particular, will countries invoke compulsory licensing on the basis of a malaria “national emergency,” and, if so, what results can we anticipate?

According to history, we can’t expect much. According to Nicol & Owoeye, “[t]o date, there is little to suggest that the Implementation Decision and the Protocol [for the compulsory licensing provisions] can meaningfully contribute to reversing the failure of the industrialized world to supply essential medicines to the countries that need them the most. Nor does there appear to be widespread enthusiasm for using Implementation Decision and Protocol mechanisms to facilitate the provision of low-cost or no-cost pharmaceuticals to those most in need.” This certainly appears to be true for impoverished African nations. For example, the continent has already been devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, yet compulsory licensing has not provided a sufficient solution. In fact, according to a UNAIDS report, “[o]f the 21.2 million people in Africa eligible for antiretroviral therapy in 2013 under the 2013 WHO guidelines, only 7.6 million people were receiving HIV treatment as of December 2012.”

Brian Owens’ article Questions Raised about Whether Compulsory Licenses get Best Pricesdiscusses one of the reasons for the disappointing results of compulsory licensing. He notes that “[t]he use of so-called ‘compulsory licenses’ by developing countries to obtain cheaper drugs for HIV and AIDS by circumventing patents has not been the best strategy for achieving the lowest prices over the past decade . . . .” Expanding on this, Owens states that, “of the 30 cases of compulsory licensing from 2003 to 2012 for which reliable data was available, the median price achieved through international procurement was lower for 19 of them [than compulsory licensing]—in the majority of cases by more than 25% . . . . The effect was strongest in the poorest countries, where in six out of seven cases the procurement price was more than 25% lower than the compulsory license price.” Amir Attaran, the director of the study discussed in Owens’ article, asserts that “countries should not rush into using compulsory licenses until they have exhausted all other options. “Countries can save money using compulsory licenses, but they can save more by negotiating and using international procurement channels . . . If saving money is paramount, then compulsory licenses may not be the optimal strategy.”

Unfortunately, saving money is paramount for many African nations. Thus the greatest “flexibility” given to these nations is not always a practical solution. Perhaps the arrival of the first malaria vaccine will motivate international leaders to learn from prior experience. Hopefully the international community will reconsider compulsory licensing, as Roma Patel did, to determine how it can better provide access to life-saving medications.

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