Everyone knows that Guglielmo Marconi as the inventor of the two-way radio. He also won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909 for his work in the field of wireless radio communication. A century later, Indian physician Jagdish Chandra Bose, was credited with with making these inventions nearly 20 years earlier. But, instead of patenting his inventions, he had chosen to make them public. In a sense, he was an ideal scientist as he understood that the ultimate aim of science was to benefit humanity. Ancient Indian medical practitioner Sushrutha was a pioneer in one type of cataract surgery. He never turned away any of the people who came from distant lands to get treated by him or to learn from him.
Fast-forwarding to the present, in 2013, the Indian Supreme ruled agaisnt granting patent rights to Novartis for its commonly used anti-cancer drug, Glivec. It upheld India’s patent law which did not allow for ever-greening of patents, that is, trying to re-patent innovations with only minor modifications. This was hailed as a shot in the arm for public health.
A need to saddle the horse
Intellectual Property Rights, in the modern sense, began with the British Statute of Monopolies and Statute of Anne in the 17th century. Until recently, it was granted only where necessary, as little as possible, so as to encourage innovation. The benefits and the need for Intellectual Property Rights are indisputable; For example, an anti-counterfiet law in Africa can prevent deaths caused due to counterfiet drugs and vaccines prevalent there. At the other end of the spectrum, Intellectual Property Rights are being misused to exclude access to life-saving drugs by increasing their costs enormously. Generic drug manufacturers, who can supply the drugs at a fraction of the cost, are allowed to manufacture the drugs only after 10 to 15 years, when the patent expires.
India and South Africa have sponsored a resolution at the World Trade Organization, to temporarily waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 related drugs and vaccines. But the developed nations are opposing this waiver, having procured more than their share of vaccines from a limited pool ( Canada has procured 10 doses per person). They are using IPR to cut off access to developing nations. Also, Costa Rica’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, a platform for voluntary sharing of Covid-19 technology, was almost unused. They want developing nations to use the existing exemptions under the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement, like compulsory licensing. But, they have also been known to threaten developing countries with filing disputes in the WTO, if developing nations take such steps. A few years back, these nations along with some MNCs, had signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which had seized ships carrying generics from India to other nations.
Not the fruits of labour
India has foiled attempts by MNCs from patenting the indigenous knowledge of India’s local communties. We learnt our lesson after some US firms patented the use of neem and turmeric in skincare products, and refused to share benefits with the communtites who have been handing down this knowledge through generations.
Colgate-Palmolive filed a patent for its nutmeg mouthwash but it was successfully countered by India through its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library. Thankfully, the rights of indigenous communities have been recognised by other agreements like Convention On Biodiversity and International Seed Treaty. But there are always attempts to subvert these rights and exemptions by mechanisms like the ‘Priority Watch List’ and ‘Special 301 Review’ of the United States.
Not exactly self-made
All inventions have been built on existing knowledge, to which generations of humans and socieities have contributed, making the question IPR moot. It is undeniable that IPR has encouraged human progress. But, it should not be taken too far, making it a tool of profiteering, at the cost of humanity. Gilead Pharmaceuticals, a USA based company, has issued voluntary licenses to generic drug manufaturers, some of them Indian, for manufacture of COVID-19 drug remdesevir. It has even forgone royalties on sale of the drug. Previously, it had issued voluntary licenses for sale of sofobuvir, a drug for hepatitis C. This allows the company to make profits, as well as ensuring affordable medicines for the public. Perhaps they have heard Gandhiji say that science without humanity is a sin.