It’s that time of the year when the global spotlight is on intellectual property (IP) rights.

But this time’s different, as the activities play out against the backdrop of the WHO’s “zero draft” negotiations, where member countries put their heads together for a framework to be better prepared for another pandemic, another public health emergency.

The draft has stirred-up an already high-pitched international conversation on IP, leading to the pharma industry and civil society organisations to read the fine print closely.

Policy landscape

IP-centric organisations would have normally been busy now with sending in submissions to the United States Trade Representative (USTR) ahead of its Special 301 report that evaluates trading partners on their performance involving IP implementation and enforcement.

But an insight into what’s on the mind of many industry platforms was revealed through another development that also takes place this time of year. The US Chamber of Commerce’s Global Innovation Policy Centre (GIPC), while launching its annual International IP Index report, points to a torrent of proposals (domestic and international) that threaten to “erode” IP rights. A key finding from this report points to the “policy landscape getting stormy”.

“The future of IP-driven innovation hangs in the balance as negotiations to pre-emptively weaken IP rights continue at the World Trade Organization, World Health Organization, and in world capitals, with the ominous possibility of a substantial erosion of the global IP framework,” says a note on the report that evaluates protection of IP rights in 55 leading economies. Citing US Department of Commerce, the note says, IP supports over $6 trillion in GDP and more than 45 million jobs in US alone.

Global inequities

At the core of these multiple discussions in different geographies is IP – the original knowledge generated in researching, discovering or creating a product, for example. In healthcare, it becomes a tight-rope walk to protect such innovations and keep it from becoming a monopoly of sorts – resulting in medicines or vaccines, for example, remaining beyond the reach of many. The inequitable access to Covid-19 vaccines is illustrative of these fault lines in the international system.

Patrick Kilbride, GIPC’s Senior Vice President explains why their report feels discussions at the WTO and WHO were a “bad turn”, despite the Covid-19 vaccine inequities experience. “Political headwinds facing the global IP system, including IP waiver proposals at multilateral organisations such as the WHO and WTO, threaten to undo the successes that led to the development of life-saving Covid vaccines and therapies in record times. Equity in the delivery of life-saving solutions to everyone who needs them requires both strong IP and effective health infrastructure at the global, national and local levels. In the pandemic, the IP system did its part; unfortunately health infrastructure was in many places unequal to the task, with challenges ranging from supply chain disruptions, to regulatory approval delays, to the lack of trained health personnel or appropriate health facilities.”

Changing world

Tracking these developments, is the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (representing large Indian companies). In its latest submission to the USTR, the IPA points out, India has shown commitment to IP laws and has consistently upgraded its system to make it easy to operate in the country. There is “a compelling case” to remove India from the Special 301 Report’s Priority Watch List, the IPA submission said.

IPA Secretary General Sudarshan Jain observes, the focus on growing IP protection in pharma has led to a considerable drug inequality and inequity. The Covid-19 pandemic, the biggest humanitarian challenge of this century, brought to the fore vaccine and medicine inequity, he says. “The world needs policies that create more medicine equity while protecting IP, and do not just create more monopolies and further inequity,” he said, urging the USTR to consider the needs of the changing world. India and the US can play a greater role in developing systems that prioritise innovation and access to technology for the common good, while boosting global cooperation, he says.

Explaining the big picture, Third World Network’s KM Gopakumar says, many in the pharmaceutical industry and developed countries were looking to reinforce the “business as usual” approach, referring to the pandemic as a trigger for IP exemptions. But developing countries are calling for exemptions and predictability not just during a pandemic, but for other public health emergencies as well. And as negotiations continue, the pandemic has made it clear, IP is not entirely sacrosanct, he says, especially in public health.