In the interests of public health it is imperative that developing countries participate in the upcoming reviews of the TRIPS Agreement. This was the strong message given to some 80 officials involved in implementing TRIPS - particularly provisions which might affect public health - in South-East Asia. Representing various ministries and national and international organizations, the officials were attending a Regional Consultation on World Trade Organization Multilateral Trade Agreements and their Implications on Health - TRIPS. The organizers were the WHO Regional Office for South-East Asia (SEARO) in collaboration with the Thai Ministry of Public Health and Chulalongkorn University. Discussions focused on the scope of patents; patenting of biotechnology and traditional medicine; generic drug production; compulsory licensing; obligations under the transitional period; parallel imports; and the Bolar exemption.*
* The Bolar exemption allows generic manufacturers experimental use and testing, for registration purposes, of patented drugs without the authorisation of the patent holder.
Experts on intellectual property rights in the health sector reviewed various aspects of the Agreement. Four country studies (Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar and Thailand) illustrated the effects of TRIPS on different national pharmaceutical sectors. The meeting identified some flexibility in the TRIPS Agreement which might be used by countries on public health grounds, such as granting compulsory licences under certain conditions. Delegates heard that TRIPS does not prevent the use of price controls administered in a non discriminatory manner. Eager to build on their productive discussions the meeting recommended that:
• a national coordination mechanism should be established between the health ministry and other ministries involved in the implementation and negotiation of the TRIPS Agreement, in order to safeguard public health interests;
• national seminars on TRIPS and health should be organized before the forthcoming WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle;
• countries should consider a proposal to WTO for a review of the TRIPS provisions which may affect public health, including diseases of global importance such as HIV/AIDS;
• WHO/SEARO should play a significant role in facilitating consultations among member countries to identify common concerns and evolve regional positions on important aspects of the TRIPS Agreement.