Intellectual property rights, pharmaceutical patents and public health in Covid-19 emergency

Intellectual property rights, pharmaceutical patents and public health in Covid-19 emergency

As the season of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic rapidly evolves, policy makers and leaders have continued to grapple with one of the world’s most recent and dynamic public health challenges. Within weeks of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, the sheer gravity in both human and material cost and in terms of the rate of transmission and attended deaths across countries has been exponential. As at April 16, 2020, World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported about 2.2 million confirmed cases and about 145 deaths globally, with rising numbers including more unreported cases defying efforts to flatten the curve. By all means, the pandemic has exacted enormous pressure on public health systems and policies, raising far-reaching political, economic, social and technological questions and uncertainties on global welfare and prospects for solution.

This development would largely shape the rapidly evolving Covid-19 era. If Covid-19 impact has been most severe in most of the best of health care systems, one can only imagine the impact on countries, which has been paying lip service to health sector. As those wide-ranging questions arise, every country is engaged in innovating and rethinking their political, economic and legal institutions for the post-Covid dispensation. At the core of these questions is the issue of intellectual property rights (IPRs) arising from emerging medical and technological innovations that would attend to finding the much-needed curative vaccines, drugs and diagnostics to finally stem the tide. If there was ever another moment to affirm the age-long precept that ‘invention is the mother of necessity’, it is now!

The global anti-Covid-19 campaign supported by corporate enterprises and brand owners through donations and production of critical items such as hydroalcoholic gels, face masks gloves and other items for health workers, patients and first responders has helped in addressing supply shortages and facilitated containment and control measures. Some of the locally innovative products fabricated in varying degrees of designs and functional utility including home-based herbal therapies, targeted at Covid-19 prevention, treatment and management, could be subject of copyright, trademark and other IPRs protection but this is not the focus of this paper.

The ultimate global innovative test is in the cure that only vaccines, protected by patents, would deliver on the global market. This crucial test has significant implications on the ability of the global public health care systems to fulfill one of its most critical objectives of delivering medicines accessible to the population especially in the developing and sub-Saharan countries like Nigeria with underdeveloped health care and innovation ecosystems. How best can public expectation be achieved; expectation to safeguard public health and ensure adequate access to affordable medicines during and after emergencies? How can the demands of IPRs meet the challenging public health emergencies such as presented by Covid-19 pandemic? This paper briefly discusses the need to integrate IPRs policies with the promotion of public health particularly relating to access to pharmaceutical patents through the adoption of the important compulsory licences instrument for Covid-19 related health care. The socio-economic importance of this instrument available under patent law and practice provides the rationale for considering them at this time.

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