Patents and public health in the WTO, FTAS and beyond: tension and conflict in international law

Andrew D. Mitchell, Tania Voon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


By mandating patent protection for pharmaceutical products, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) creates difficulties for developing countries seeking to import medicines to deal with serious public health concerns. In 2001, WTO Members began working towards a solution to this problem. Their work led to a temporary waiver of certain TRIPS obligations and a proposal for a formal amendment of the TRIPS Agreement. However, the waiver remains underutilized and the amendment still lacks the necessary support of WTO Members for it to come into effect, suggesting that Members need to re-evaluate their commitment to affordable medicines while testing the workability of the waiver before making it permanent. Moreover, the potential of bilateral approaches to the problem of access to medicines for developing countries in the context of international trade is not being realized. On the contrary, preferential trade agreements concluded with the United States (US), in particular, are extending patent protection and diminishing flexibilities available under the TRIPS Agreement to address public health concerns. A pattern of contradictions exists between the WTO rhetoric on the one hand and Members' domestic frameworks, bilateral agreements, and unilateral actions on the other. When it comes to attaining a coherent approach under international law towards reconciling patents and public health, the outlook is bleak.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)571-601
Number of pages31
JournalJournal of World Trade
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes

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