India and the US have locked horns yet again on the issue of intellectual property rights and the right-to-protect access to cheap life saving medicines — this time at the World Trade Organisation.

New Delhi has teamed up with Brazil, China and South Africa to initiate a discussion on a recent report by a high level UN panel on access to medicines that stresses on the importance of using flexibilities in the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) pact to achieve the objective.

The US, which has been bilaterally pushing India to tighten its IPR regime, has said that it was disappointed by the report which “distracts from rather than benefits” the objective of achieving universal health.

“India is happy that the UN report vindicates its long-held stand that it would not go beyond the TRIPS agreement as it could affect availability of cheap life-saving medicines in the country. The flexibilities that the TRIPS pact offers are deliberate to give nations room to structure their policies as per their needs and cannot be given up,” a Commerce Ministry official told BusinessLine . The discussion is important as the US and Switzerland are also pushing the WTO for allowing ‘non-violation’ complaints on TRIPS-related issues which would mean that complaints could be lodged on IPR matters even if the multilateral pact is not violated.

Many developing countries, on the other hand, want a Ministerial decision of excluding such disputes permanently.

“If all WTO members accept that the TRIPS flexibilities are to be respected by all, then there would be no room for any disputes,” the official said.

What the US and the EU have against India’s intellectual property legislation is a particular provision (Section 3(d) ) which allows the Indian Patents Controller to deny patents on items that are not significantly different from their older versions. This prevents pharmaceutical majors from getting fresh patents on medicines with expired patents by making just cosmetic changes in its formulation.

New Delhi is also holding on to its right-to-issue compulsory licences for manufacture of copies of patented drugs to address situations of national emergency, another flexibility that the TRIPS pact allows.

There is a clear divide between developed and developing countries on their reaction to the report with Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Bolivia, supporting the panel’s recommendations and the EU, Switzerland, Japan and South Korea criticising it for being “narrow in scope’’.

Supporting innovation

The US, at the WTO TRIPS council meeting, noted that intellectual property protections needed to be in place to support new research and innovation.

“There can be no access to drugs that have not been developed; support in innovation is essential.” the US delegation said.

A few countries, including Canada, Chile, Australia and Norway, said that they needed more time to consider the wide array of recommendations in the report.