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TRIPS and Big Pharma

The WTO's Trade Related Intellectual Property Agreement (TRIPS) prescribes an intellectual property regime which casts a very wide sweep with respect to intellectual property that can be commercially owned and is directed to ensuring that owners of such property have full protection and full benefit of such ownership.

During the late 1990s there was growing outrage around the world about the way in which the TRIPS regime was being used to maximise the profits of big pharmaceutical companies at the expense of denying acces to life saving drugs, in particular for AIDS. This was epitomised in the fact that the Indian company Cipla was able to sell antiretrovirals to MSF for around 5% of the cost that the big pharmaceutical companies were charging. In South Africa in 1999 a group of 28 international pharmaceutical companies sued the South African government for bypassing the patent owners in procuring drugs from overseas (parallel importing). The local and global campaign against this led to the pharmaceutical companies with drawing in 2001 (and paying costs).

In December 2001 at the WTO Ministerial Council in Doha Qatar the WTO accepted the principle that public health is more important than profit and committed the organisation to find a way of authorising compulsory licensing for the export of drugs to poor countries who do not have their own generics industry. The USA stood out against this initiative and has tried to sabotage it all the way since then.

In this topic

  • we will explore the way the TRIPS agreement works,
  • the histories of the issues and campaigns over intellectual property and pharmaceuticals,
  • the role of the US in imposing trade rules on behalf of big pharma through bilateral bullying or regional 'free trade' agreements,
  • the lessons from the TAC and MSF campaigns,
  • next steps in this continuing struggle.




  • Geoff Tansey and Tasmin Rajotte (Eds)(2008)The Future Control of Food: A Guide to International Negotiations and Rules on Intellectual Property, Biodiversity and Food Security (Earthscan/IDRC )
  • Health for Sale


    From Atlanta, 2007

    Lily Walkover (CPATH) Trade and Health.
    Tanya Wansom (AMSA0: Trips, the US TR and Thailand

    From Cuenca, 2005

    Topics developed by Garance Upham.

    TRIPS & DOHA.ppt (En)
    TRIPS & DOHA.ppt (Sp)

    Property Rights Perspective.ppt (En)
    Property Rights Perspective.ppt (Sp)

    Discussion questions

    What are the most strategic claims to campaign around in the lead up to the WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong in December this year.

    See Role Play on Patent Rights and Access to Pharmaceuticals

    Assignment topics

    Describe the political field globally within which TRIPS reform is determined. Explore the most strategic claims, slogans and campaign strategies which PHM might consider in relation to access to essential medicines for poor countries.

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