African Journal of Biotechnology

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Pharmaceutical patents and access to essential medicines in sub-Saharan Africa

ZA Zainol, L Amin, K Jusoff, A Zahid, F Akpoviri


The World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) has reawakened old arguments over the impact of the intellectual property (IP) system on public access to essential medicines. As used here, essential medicines are those needed in symptom management, palliative care, and in the treatment of infections, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), malaria, tuberculosis, and sleeping sickness in places like sub-Saharan Africa. Some argue that patents will further inhibit access to these medicines in sub-Saharan Africa. Others, however, argue the opposite. The latter maintain that patent protection under TRIPS can promote the growth of the pharmaceutical industry in places like sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, they assert that pharmaceutical patents are not responsible for the limited access to essential medicines in sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, they trace the problem of access to non-patent factors, such as poverty, the lack of supportive infrastructure, and poor governance. This paper set out to assess these contrasting arguments, with a view to determining the actual impact that pharmaceutical patents may be having on access to essential medicines in sub-Saharan Africa. Keyword search of electronic databases was conducted, in addition to a review of relevant literature from print sources. A manual analysis then followed. It was found that, rather than a single set of factors, both patent and nonpatent factors combine to inhibit access to essential medicines in sub-Saharan Africa. It is imperative for sub-Saharan African countries to review current tariff and taxation policies, take steps to improve the supply of vital infrastructure, and strengthen their overall healthcare systems. They should also ensure that their IP systems are supportive of public healthcare needs. Equally important, is that TRIPS and the IP system should be more supportive of sub-Saharan Africa’s struggle to bear its disease burden, rather than focusing narrowly on profit maximisation for pharmaceutical companies. Sub-Saharan Africa also needs increased international financing, private-public collaboration in research, and the sharing of benefits in order to cater effectively for the health needs of its citizens.

Key words: Trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (trips), essential medicines, sub-Saharan Africa, pharmaceutical, patents, access, malaria, human immunodeficiency virus/ acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS).

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