U.N. agency says coronavirus emergency could trump some patent rights

GENEVA (Reuters) – Discussions are under way on enabling wider access to some patented drugs and medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic, the head of the U.N.’s intellectual property agency said on Tuesday. FILE PHOTO: World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Director General Francis Gurry speaks at the opening ceremony of the fifth World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, November 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Francis Gurry, director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), said that during an emergency, health and safety “trumps everything”. 

World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday that he backed a proposal by Costa Rica’s President Carlos Alvarado to “create a pool of rights to tests, medicines and vaccines, with free access or licensing on reasonable and affordable terms for all countries”. 

“We are working with Costa Rica to finalise the details,” Tedros told reporters. 

WIPO’s Gurry, asked about demands for access to drugs and compulsory licensing, told a separate news conference: “This is a hot issue, and it’s a very sensitive issue as well.” 

But extraordinary situations call for “extraordinary measures”, he said, adding: “The international legal framework does foresee a certain number of flexibilities for countries to be able to deal with health in particular and health emergencies. 

“If they are targeted, such as the compulsory license situation, a very specific compulsory license on a very specific product to ensure the supply of product in the market, that’s arguably the sort of action that we need,” he said. 

A “non-legislative mechanism” would be a “great way forward”, Gurry said, adding: “Let’s look at the practical measures that can make a difference here. And of course we are involved discussions with various parties to see what might be done in this regard.” 

The World Trade Organization’s so-called TRIPS agreement (Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights) essentially allows countries during an emergency to grant “compulsory licenses” to companies to produce a patented product. 

Canada’s emergency legislation on the coronavirus crisis adopted last month gives the health minister powers to circumvent patent law and ensure medical supplies, medication or vaccines can be produced locally. 

Israel last month invoked an emergency patent-suspension clause, allowing it to import a generic version of anti-viral drug Kaletra produced by AbbVie Inc 

Gurry said tech start-ups and creative industries including musicians and actors should be covered in compensation packages for the crisis which has hit jobs and venture capital. 

“The impact on innovation is going to be extremely significant,” he said. “We would like to see governments paying attention in their remediation packages also to the plight of our creators.”

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