Intellectual Property Rights, Trade and Health

Intellectual Property Rights, Trade and Health in South-East Asia

A good understanding of intellectual property rights and trade agreements is an increasingly important part of efforts to achieve public health goals, including universal health coverage. The movement of persons, medicines, food and agriculture products across international borders has increased, and international events increasingly have to be taken into account in national decision-making.

Innovation and research - for example for new medicines and technologies - need to be promoted, at the same time health may need to be protected from undesirable consequences of trade agreements. Major public health issues that may be affected by trade agreements are

  • Access to affordable, quality medical products (medicines, vaccines, diagnostics)
  • Risk factors for diseases such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, due to for example, consumption of tobacco, unhealthy diets and harmful use of alcohol

There are a growing number of multinational and bilateral free trade agreements being negotiated by countries that have implications for health. One of the most important is the 1995 World Trade Organization (WTO) multilateral engagement. The following WTO agreements permit exceptions to trade rules on the grounds of health:

  • General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 (GATT)
  • Agreement on Agriculture
  • Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS)
  • Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT)
  • General Agreement on Trade in Services (the “GATS”).
  • Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)
  • Agreement on Government Procurement

The ‘TRIPS Agreement’, which lays down minimum standards for intellectual property rights, has been significant for access to medical products. Areas of intellectual property relevant to health include patents; trademarks (important for counterfeit drugs and in the context of tobacco and nutrition labelling); trade secrets and test data protection. The 2001 Doha declaration on the TRIPS agreement stated that TRIPS “can and should be interpreted and implemented in a manner supportive of WTO members' right to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all”.

The aim of WHO’s Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property is to address many of these intellectual property and trade issues related to public health. The objective is to promote innovation, technology transfer and to increase access to all medical products, and ensure their quality and safety.

In the South-East Asia Region, WHO

  • Provides technical support to countries on the implications of trade agreements for different aspects of public health.
  • Promotes national skills development and understanding of international and national laws and regulations related to NCD Prevention and Control
  • Supports national assessment of the Global Strategy and Plan of Action
  • Supports improved information on pharmaceutical enterprises

Latest publication

For further information, please see the links below: