In 2001, WTO Members adopted a special Ministerial Declaration at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha to clarify ambiguities between the need for governments to apply the principles of public health and the terms of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). In particular, concerns had been growing that patent rules might restrict access to affordable medicines for populations in developing countries in their efforts to control diseases of public health importance, including HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. The Declaration responds to the concerns of developing countries about the obstacles they faced when seeking to implement measures to promote access to affordable medicines in the interest of public health in general, without limitation to certain diseases. While acknowledging the role of intellectual property protection “for the development of new medicines”, the Declaration specifically recognizes concerns about its effects on prices.
The Doha Declaration affirms that “the TRIPS Agreement does not and should not prevent Members from taking measures to protect public health”. In this regard, the Doha Declaration enshrines the principles WHO has publicly advocated and advanced over the years, namely the re-affirmation of the right of WTO Members to make full use of the safeguard provisions of the TRIPS Agreement in order to protect public health and enhance access to medicines for poor countries.
The Doha Declaration refers to several aspects of TRIPS, including the right to grant compulsory licenses and the freedom to determine the grounds upon which licences are granted, the right to determine what constitutes a national emergency and circumstances of extreme urgency, and the freedom to establish the regime of exhaustion of intellectual property rights.
The TRIPS Agreement allows the use of compulsory licences. Compulsory licensing enables a competent government authority to license the use of a patented invention to a third party or government agency without the consent of the patent-holder. Article 31 of the Agreement sets forth a number of conditions for the granting of compulsory licences. These include a case-by-case determination of compulsory licence applications, the need to demonstrate prior (unsuccessful) negotiations with the patent owner for a voluntary licence and the payment of adequate remuneration to the patent holder. Where compulsory licences are granted to address a national emergency or other circumstances of extreme urgency, certain requirements are waived in order to hasten the process, such as that for the need to have had prior negotiations obtain a voluntary licence from the patent holder. Although the Agreement refers to some of the possible grounds (such as emergency and anticompetitive practices) for issuing compulsory licences, it leaves Members full freedom to stipulate other grounds, such as those related to non-working of patents, public health or public interest. The Doha Declaration states that each Member has the right to grant compulsory licences and the freedom to determine the grounds upon which such licences are granted.
Parallel importation is importation without the consent of the patent-holder of a patented product marketed in another country either by the patent holder or with the patent-holder’s consent. The principle of exhaustion states that once patent holders, or any party authorized by him, have sold a patented product, they cannot prohibit the subsequent resale of that product since their rights in respect of that market have been exhausted by the act of selling the product. Article 6 of the TRIPS Agreement explicitly states that practices relating to parallel importation cannot be challenged under the WTO dispute settlement system. The Doha Declaration has reaffirmed that Members do have this right, stating that each Member is free to establish its own regime for such exhaustion without challenge.
Since many patented products are sold at different prices in different markets, the rationale for parallel importation is to enable the import of lower priced patented products. Parallel importing can be an important tool enabling access to affordable medicines because there are substantial price differences between the same pharmaceutical product sold in different markets.
Extension of transition period for Least-Developed Countries (LDCs)
The Doha Declaration also extended the transition period for LDCs for implementation of the TRIPS obligations from 2006 to 2016. However, the extension is limited to the obligations under provisions in the TRIPS Agreement relating to patents and marketing rights, and data protection for pharmaceutical products. Thus, LDCs are still obliged to implement the rest of their obligations under the TRIPS Agreement as of 2006. From a public health perspective, this extension of the transition period for LDCs is of significant importance. It is a recognition of the implications of patent protection on public health, and thus, it is recommended that all LDCs adopt the necessary measures to use the 2016 transition period in relation to pharmaceutical patents and test data protection.