Safeguarding public health – Article from #1 2019


In a world with an estimated population of 7.6 billion, 2 billion people lack access to medicines that are imperative to their health and survival. 1 Consequently, 15,000 deaths per day (more than half of the 5.6 million children who died before their fifth birthday in 2016) could have been prevented with the provision of essential health services. 2 In total, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that at least 18 million people die needlessly each year from medicinal inaccessibility. 3 The geographical distribution of those unable to access medicines is concentrated in developing countries (DC) and least developed countries (LDCs). As a result, the same disease with a 90% cure rate in America can have a 90% death rate in Africa. 4 While there are many conclusions that one may draw from these figures, one thing is clear: the inability to access medicines in DCs and LDCs remains a pressing global problem, and one that prevails despite the safeguards present under international law. International human rights law protects the right to health, including access to medicine. Additionally, international intellectual property (IP) law permits compulsory licenses (CLs), offering countries a means to circumvent intellectual property rights (IPRs) to preserve public health, given that the unaffordability of medicines is attributed mainly to patent rights. While it is true that patent rights do not solely inhibit medical accessibility (socio-economic and political factors also play a role) it is also true that patent rights granted under the multilateral legal agreement on ‘Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights’ (TRIPS) 5 allow pharmaceutical companies to inflate prices well above marginal costs, thereby undermining the right to health. (Continued in Article)

  1. World Health Organization, “Access to Medicine Index 2018 – Methodology Report,” 6.
  2. UNICEF & United Nations Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation, “Child Mortality Estimates: Global and Regional Under-Five, Infant and Neonatal Mortality Rates and Deaths” 19th October 2017.
  3. Statistics obtained from documentary “Fire in the Blood” directed by Dylan Mohan Grey,
    released on the 12st of February 2013; Devi Sridhar, “Improving Access to Essential Medicines: How Health Concerns can be Prioritised in the Global Governance System,” Public Health Ethics 1, no. 2, (2008): 83.
  4. Donald G. McNeil Jr, “As Cancer Tears Through Africa, Drug Makers Draw Up Battle Plan,” The New York Times, 7th October 2017.
  5. Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, 15th April 1994,
    Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO, Annex 1C, Legal Instruments – Results of the Uruguay Round, 33 I.L.M 1197 (1994) (hereinafter ‘TRIPS’).