Reed Beall and Randall Kuhn describe their findings from an analysis of use of compulsory licenses for pharmaceutical products by World Trade Organization members since 1995.
It is now a decade since the World Trade Organization (WTO) adopted the “Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health” at its 4th Ministerial Conference in Doha. Many anticipated that these actions would lead nations to claim compulsory licenses (CLs) for pharmaceutical products with greater regularity. A CL is the use of a patented innovation that has been licensed by a state without the permission of the patent title holder. Skeptics doubted that many CLs would occur, given political pressure against CL activity and continued health system weakness in poor countries. The subsequent decade has seen little systematic assessment of the Doha Declaration's impact.
Methods and Findings
We assembled a database of all episodes in which a CL was publically entertained or announced by a WTO member state since 1995. Broad searches of CL activity were conducted using media, academic, and legal databases, yielding 34 potential CL episodes in 26 countries. Country- and product-specific searches were used to verify government participation, resulting in a final database of 24 verified CLs in 17 nations. We coded CL episodes in terms of outcome, national income, and disease group over three distinct periods of CL activity. Most CL episodes occurred between 2003 and 2005, involved drugs for HIV/AIDS, and occurred in upper-middle-income countries (UMICs). Aside from HIV/AIDS, few CL episodes involved communicable disease, and none occurred in least-developed or low-income countries.
Given skepticism about the Doha Declaration's likely impact, we note the relatively high occurrence of CLs, yet CL activity has diminished markedly since 2006. While UMICs have high CL activity and strong incentives to use CLs compared to other countries, we note considerable countervailing pressures against CL use even in UMICs. We conclude that there is a low probability of continued CL activity. We highlight the need for further systematic evaluation of global health governance actions.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The development of a new drug is a time-consuming and expensive process. To stimulate investment in drug development, the creators of new drugs (including the pharmaceutical companies that undertake the development and testing that is needed before any drug can be used in patients) can apply for “intellectual property rights” (a patent). Intellectual property rights protect the investments made by companies during drug development by preventing other companies from making the new drug for a fixed period of time and by providing a means by which creators of new drugs can negotiate payment from other companies for the use of their creation. Until recently, the extent and enforcement of intellectual property rights varied widely around the world. Then, in 1995, the World Trade Organization (WTO) was established. By providing a set of ground rules for trade among nations, the WTO aims to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably, and freely as possible around the world. One of the founding documents of the WTO is the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement), which attempts to bring the protection of intellectual property rights (including patents) under common international rules.
Why Was This Study Done?
Unfortunately, patent protection for drugs (pharmaceuticals) means that many medicines are too expensive for use in developing countries. While maintaining incentives for drug development, the TRIPS Agreement allows governments to license the use of patented inventions to someone else without the consent of the patent owner. Such “compulsory licensing” normally occurs only after negotiations for a voluntary license have failed, and the patent owner still receives an appropriate payment. It soon became clear that some governments were unsure of their right to use compulsory licensing and other flexibilities in the TRIPS Agreement, a situation likely to affect public health in poor countries by hindering universal access to medicines. Consequently, the WTO issued the “Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health” at its 4th Ministerial Conference in Doha in November 2001. Reaction to the Doha Declaration, which reaffirms that the “TRIPS Agreement does not and should not prevent members from taking measures to protect public health,” has been mixed. Some experts predicted that it would increase compulsory licensing of pharmaceuticals, but others suggested that political pressure against compulsory licensing and health system weaknesses in poor countries would limit claims for compulsory licenses. In this database analysis, the researchers systematically assess the impact of the Doha Declaration on the compulsory licensing of pharmaceuticals.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
By systematically searching media archives for reports of WTO member states considering or announcing compulsory licensing of pharmaceuticals, the researchers identified 24 verified compulsory licensing episodes in 17 nations that occurred between January 1995 and June 2011. Half of these episodes ended with an announcement of a compulsory license, and the majority ended in a price reduction for a specific pharmaceutical product for the potential issuing nation through a compulsory license, a voluntary license, or a negotiated discount. Sixteen of the compulsory licensing episodes involved drugs for HIV/AIDS, four involved drugs for other communicable diseases, and four involved drugs for non-communicable diseases such as cancer. More than half the compulsory licensing episodes occurred in upper-middle-income countries (including Brazil and Thailand). Finally, most compulsory licensing episodes occurred between 2003 and 2005. There was a smaller peak of activity in the months leading up to the Doha conference, but after 2006 activity declined substantially.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Given these findings, the researchers suggest that the Doha Declaration is unlikely to have an important long-term impact on the use of compulsory licensing or on access to pharmaceuticals for communicable diseases other than HIV/AIDS in developing and low-income countries. Most notably, the researchers found no evidence of a spike in compulsory licensing episodes immediately after the Doha Declaration, and they note that the lagged spike that occurred between 2003 and 2005 could have resulted in large part from the global antiretroviral advocacy campaign. Moreover, compulsory licensing activity has diminished greatly since 2006. Thus, the researchers conclude, health advocates who pushed for the Doha Declaration reforms have had little success in engaging trade as a positive, proactive force for addressing health gaps.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001154.
The World Trade Organization provides information on intellectual property rights, on the TRIPS Agreement, on TRIPS and pharmaceutical patents, and on compulsory licensing of pharmaceuticals and TRIPS (in English, French, and Spanish); the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health is also available
The World Health Organization provides information on the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health and an analysis of the implications of the Doha Declaration
Wikipedia has pages on intellectual property rights, on the TRIPS Agreement, and on the Doha Declaration (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)