The Inter-Regional Workshop on Intellectual Property Rights in the Context of Traditional Medicine was held in Bangkok from 6 to 8 December 2000. This meeting was part of the following-up to the implementation of WHO’s revised drug strategy concerned with the monitoring and analysis of the effects of globalization on access to drugs. As the WTO Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is currently revising Article 27.3 (b) of the TRIPS Agreement, which deals with the patentability of traditional knowledge, it is expected that the conclusions and recommendations of the meeting will contribute to this review. Forty-eight participants from 23 countries attended the meeting. In his message to the workshop, read by the WR of Thailand, Dr E.B. Doberstyn, the Regional Director, WHO SEAR, Dr Uton Muchtar Rafei said that traditional medicine is an important part of human health care. The practice of traditional medicine is based on the theory, belief and experiences indigenous to different cultures. Recently, traditional medicine has increasingly gained in importance. At the meeting of ministers of health held in September 1998 in New Delhi, the ministers strongly emphasized that these resources should be used more efficiently in the delivery of primary health care. WHO also encourages and promotes the appropriate use of traditional medicines in member states’ national health care systems.
Currently there is an increasing awareness of the value of traditional knowledge and biodiversity resources as economic and tradable commodities. This, coupled with the impact of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) on pharmaceuticals, including traditional medicine, necessitates this meeting of minds to address the complex issue of intellectual property rights so as to achieve better understanding and wider consensus on these issues.
At the Earth Summit for the adaptation of the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, members accepted the principles that bio-resources are the sole property of sovereign states and that they have the freedom to use them as tradable commodities. However, most developing countries have not so far enacted legislation to implement the resolutions passed at the Convention. The need to protect traditional knowledge and to secure fair and equitable sharing of the benefits derived from the use of biodiversity and associated traditional medicine knowledge has been fully recognized. The Director concluded by expressing the hope that the deliberations of the Inter-Regional Workshop on Intellectual Property Rights in the Context of Traditional Medicine would improve the knowledge and capability to tackle problems of intellectual property rights relating to traditional medicine. The full text of the address is at Annex I.
Dr Mongkol Na Songkhla, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Public Health, Thailand, in his welcome address read by Dr Winai Sawasdivivoon, Deputy Director General, Department of Medical Services, Thailand, said that it was timely for the workshop to address the important issue of intellectual property rights in the context of traditional medicine. The rich resources of traditional medicine knowledge and biodiversity in developing countries need to be protected and we need to ensure that there is an equitable sharing of the benefits resulting from their exploitation. He thanked WHO for providing technical and financial supports for the workshop. The text of his address is at Annex II.
Ms Maria Perez-Esteve, Economic Affairs Office, Trade, Environment and Development Section, delivered UNCTAD’s opening statement to the workshop. She said that traditional medicine plays an important role in health care in both developed and developing countries in the 21st century. Up to 80% of the world’s population depends on traditional medicine for its primary health care needs. Furthermore, traditional medicine is indispensable for those in the poorest segments of societies, including women, indigenous peoples and rural inhabitants in developing countries. In describing work of special relevance to this group, she said that UNCTAD’s Member States had decided to address the protection of traditional knowledge as part of their activities in the area of trade and environment. The Plan of Action adopted by UNCTAD’s tenth Conference stated that: “UNCTAD should also, in full cooperation with other relevant organizations, in particular and where appropriate the World Intellectual Property Organization and the World Health Organization, promote analysis and consensus building with a view to identifying issues that could yield potential benefits to developing countries”. It specifies that this work should inter alia focus on: “Taking into account the objectives and provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the TRIPS Agreement, studying ways to protect traditional knowledge, innovation and practices of local and indigenous communities and enhance cooperation on research and development on technologies associated with the sustainable use of biological resources” (paragraph 147 of the Plan of Action, third bullet).
In accordance with its mandate, UNCTAD held an Expert Meeting on Systems and National Experiences for Protecting Traditional Knowledge, Innovations and Practices, in close cooperation with the secretariats of other intergovernmental organizations, in particular the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Intellectual Property Organization. The Expert Meeting was held in Geneva from 30 October to 1 November 2000.
The Expert Meeting was the first in UNCTAD’s history to involve indigenous groups in the organization’s intergovernmental work on such a large scale. Over 250 delegates from nearly 80 countries, representing Governments, non-governmental organizations, UN specialized agencies, academia and the private sector, attended the meeting.
Throughout the Expert Meeting individual experts put forward views and policy options for Governments to consider in protecting traditional knowledge, innovations and practices. A diversity of views was expressed and a summary of the experts’ conclusions and recommendations will be submitted to UNCTAD’s Commission on Trade in Goods and Services, and Commodities next February.
As an organization mandated to promote trade and development, UNCTAD is very understanding of the role of traditional knowledge, and in particular of traditional medicine, in the development process. This may be the case in particular in the poorest countries and we have to give this serious consideration, for example, in the context of the preparations for the third United Nations Conference for the Least Developed Countries to be held next year in Brussels.
Mr. Shakeel Bhatti, Program Officer, Global Intellectual Property Issues Division, gave an opening statement on behalf of WIPO. He explained that WIPO is a specialized United Nations agency responsible for the protection of intellectual property and its promotion throughout the world. In accordance with the Convention Establishing the World Intellectual Property Organization, (WIPO), (1967), intellectual property may be understood as a comprehensive and dynamic concept, which is open-ended and is constantly evolving (Article 2(viii)). In recent times, this dynamic nature applies also to intellectual property in relation to traditional knowledge. In 1998, Member States requested WIPO to initiate a work programme on intellectual property and traditional knowledge. Over the past four years, the work programme has produced substantial results, including some in the area of traditional medicine.
There are two areas of WIPO’s work that are especially relevant to this workshop. Firstly, within WIPO’s work on traditional knowledge, traditional medicine is probably the foremost area driving the intellectual property agenda in the field of traditional knowledge. This is especially true for Asian countries where the great systems of traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine are found. Secondly, throughout WIPO’s work in the area of traditional medicine, there is a need for bridge-building between national authorities, experts and practitioners in the field of intellectual property on the one hand and traditional medicine on the other. In order to have a truly effective approach to the protection of traditional medicine knowledge and plants, it is necessary to consider the existing situation and practices in both fields.
WIPO strongly believes that representatives of intellectual property offices, ministries of health and traditional medicine research centres need to exchange their experiences and identify common ways forward.