The recognition of Intellectual property rights, including patents on medicines, is now a standard condition in international trade agreements. Less developed countries have little choice but to accept the conditions imposed by wealthier trade partners, even when they limit the nation’s ability to adopt healthcare suited to local needs and resources. Accepting patents means a choice between paying higher prices or just not having essential medicines.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, known as the TRIPS Agreement, requires member states to recognise patents, trademarks and copyrights. In the case of medicines this means that members agree not to manufacture or import cheaper generic versions.
In spite of attempts to make it more flexible TRIPS protects the monopolies and profits of pharmaceutical corporations and prevents the availability of affordable medicines in Africa. It has also spread patent protection to countries that produce generic versions of drugs. In 2005, India, one of the largest producers of generic medicines, bowed to pressure and began to recognise patents. India, therefore, will not produce generic versions of new drugs until their patents, which can last for up to twenty years, expire.