Myanmar: Creating an intellectual property law that protects public health

Lobbying for an intellectual property law that doesn’t just serve big business, but protects public health and encourages innovation in medicine.

The Myanmar Positive Group (MPG), one of the three national networks of our partner APN+, has been working hard, lobbying to ensure that the new intellectual property (IP) law includes all the internationally recognised flexibilities that allow governments to act in the interest of public health. Without these flexibilities, big pharmaceuticals are frequently granted unmerited patents on essential medicines, at the expense of public health budgets and patients.

Over recent years, with a changing political situation in Myanmar, dialogues on trade and development have been increasingly taking place with richer countries. Some of these countries have been putting pressure on Myanmar to have an intellectual property (IP) rights law to attract foreign investment. As a result, Myanmar has a draft intellectual property rights and trademark law that will be debated in the parliament in the near future (date to be confirmed).

In response to this, MPG, in partnership with APN+, has been advocating for the new IP law to include all TRIPS flexibilities and also reflect the WTO TRIPS agreement recognizing that the least developed countries (LDC), which includes Myanmar, do not have to grant patents on pharmaceutical products and medical devices until 2033. Even if the law is passed prior to this date, as an LDC, Myanmar is still not obliged to put its patent process into effect until then.

MPG and APN+’s advocacy actions have included establishing a working group with community and NGO representatives, along with the ministries of health, information, commerce, and science and technology. The group also comprises of an IP and trademark law firm, the National AIDS program, UN agencies (UNDP, WHO, UNAIDS, UNICEF) and MPG. Having all the key stakeholders at the table means that everyone with an interest in this issue has a shared understanding of what the law will encompass, and the impact.

Involving communities

MPG held a community consultation in Yangon, to share the contents of the draft law and the implications. Additionally, a series of capacity building workshops and training were conducted for people living with HIV and other key populations from across the country. The aim was to ensure communities understand the impact, and are engaged with legal and technical decisions that affect public health.

Access aim – progress with Hep C treatment

The end goal of having a fair IP law, one which prevents abuse of the patent system, and ensures medicines are appropriately priced, is so that essential treatment can be accessed by everyone who needs it. Currently, there is a gap in access to hepatitis C treatment in Myanmar, which MPG and APN+ are actively addressing. Gilead Sciences is the patent holder of sofosbuvir, the new key drug for optimal hepatitis C treatment regimens. Despite Myanmar being one of the countries in the Gilead’s voluntary license, generic sofosbuvir and other new hepatitis C medicines have not been available in the country. Our partners have been lobbying the generic manufacturers in India to register their drugs in the country and as a result a number of companies are now in the process of doing so. In the interim, while waiting for the registration to be completed, MPG and APN+ have been helping people to procure generic drugs from India on individual basis. The future for access to hepatitis C treatment hopefully looks more secure, with Médecins du Monde (MDM) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) starting a treatment program in the country soon, which will be further bolstered if a grant from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria is agreed, which Myanmar’s Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM) will look to allocate. However, driving prices down further, through real competition will be essential in the future to increase access to affordable, optimal treatment.