IP for Development?

By: /
October 3, 2011

Are pre-competitive consortiums a way to get better and cheaper drugs to developing countries? Is something like a Medicines Patent Pool targeted at HIV/AIDS anti-retroviral medicines feasible?

Pre-competitive consortia relate to general drug discovery and not particularly to developing countries. The goal is to reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of all drug development, open up new avenues of research and generally speed up drug discovery. This applies to all drug development, whether aimed at developing or developed country health needs. The Medicines Patent Pool is not a pre-competitive consortium but a downstream, post-competitive distribution vehicle. So far, the Pool has not been successful since it has not been able to convince industry of its benefits. A significant part of the reason for this is, in my view, that there is a lack of trust between the organisers of the Pool and industry. On the other hand, the concept of a post-competitive pool is completely feasible if it involves all partners — industry, academic, philanthropic and government.

In which areas (both geographical regions and areas of research) have pre-competitive consortiums worked? In which ones have they not? What is the difference?

Geography is not the key concept here but research area. IT has many pools including those for chip technology and DVDs. In many ways, one can consider open source to be a very open form of pre-competitive consortium. Consortia in the life sciences are less abundant but the Structural Genomics Consortia provides one shining example. Much of the difference between sectors is the life-cycle of the technology, industry structure and, in my view, most significant, industry norms. Some industries are open and other are closed. There are historical reasons for this but not necessarily functional reasons for it.

To what degree does Canada's stance on IP impact its foreign policy and its international reputation? Does Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade see this as an important part of its prerogative?

Very little. Canada has a world-class IP system. Apart from being listed by the USTR for not doing what the United States (U.S.) wants, Canada is regarded as having a high level of IP protection. Complaints in the U.S. centre on the fact that we have not ratified several WIPO treaties although we have no obligation to do so. This is mainly the result of lobbying from the movie and music industries and represents a failed business model rather than anything wrong with our IP system. Otherwise, while complaints always exist about this or that aspect of our IP laws, there really is very little. DFAIT sees IP as important, but the main impetus for action is likely coming from Heritage Canada, which deals with the U.S. music and movie industry.

If Canada used the amount of money it currently puts into official development assistance to instead lead international efforts to reform IP laws and norms, would it ultimately have a greater impact on the lives of citizens living in developing countries?

These questions are quite different. Canada's success in international development has been less than stellar according to a Senate report that came out in the last year or two. Our rules are complex, overly focused on Canadian firms and not enough on building capacity. The IDRC does a good job but has a very limited budget. One can contemplate that Canada could do much more and much better at development if it tried. Putting effort on IP reform would be a complete was of resources. What these countries need is to develop research management capacity so that they can set their own priorities for research and implement projects that meet those needs. Only once that is accomplished will expertise in commercialization develop. Right now, IP is the least of developing country concerns. Further, what developing countries need in IP is to develop IP strategies that meet their needs, not those that emulate the policies in Canada or the US.

What are international organizations stances on intellectual property? In general, do they lean toward protecting rights to spur innovation or to fulfilling a responsibility to developing countries?

This is a spurious distinction. Most international organizations favour the appropriate use of IP laws, the development of research capacity and appropriate models and methods of commercialization. IP is not the major driver (as it is really not anywhere), but research and innovation capacity and planning.