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Medical Patents and the WTO

For the major pharmaceutical firms, it is the formal ratification of their global rights.

For public health activists, it risks becoming a byword for corporate control and moral indifference.

Approved in 1995 at the creation of the World Trade Organization, the Trade and Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement—TRIPS for short—is sure to be at the heart of future debate over access to essential medicine.

The irony is that TRIPS is itself ambiguous over exactly how strong patents should become. By 2006, all 137 countries in the WTO must have implemented strong intellectual property rights guaranteeing 20-year monopolies on novel drugs. Several articles in the text, however, allow for loopholes like licensing a local version of a patented drug or importing from the cheapest foreign supplier in the event of a health emergency.

What this might all mean is as yet uncertain. So far, U.S. trade officials have interpreted the agreement as a leash on countries like Thailand and Argentina with flourishing generic pharmaceutical firms (cases against both Argentina and Brazil are pending before the WTO's dispute settlement board). Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, however, seemed to veer towards the lenient interpretation in May 2000 by signing an executive order allowing African nations to flout pharmaceutical patent rights. The battle for TRIPS has just begun.

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