Access to medicines: intellectual property rights, human rights and justice

Bright, Keren and Muraguri, Lois (2011). Access to medicines: intellectual property rights, human rights and justice. In: Voiculescu, Aurora and Yanacopulos, Helen eds. The Business of Human Rights. An Evolving Agenda for Corporate Responsibility. Human Rights; Business. London, UK and New York, USA: Zed Books in association with the Open University, pp. 101–121.



Conceptually and philosophically, intellectual property rights are about power relations. These power relations are shown in particularly stark terms in the field of health. Discourse often refers to “the 90/10 gap”, that is, approximately 90% of all medical research is directed towards diseases affecting only 10% of the world’s population. The true figures are probably bleaker than this. The pharmaceutical industry, premised as it is on profit return, invests in diseases with a large market that can bear higher prices and sidelines research in diseases with a low rate of profit return, typically those in the developing countries.

This chapter is concerned with the dynamics between pharmaceutical companies who own patents to medicines, the human right to health and the access of the poor to 'essential medicines'. We consider the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies in sharing scientific advances and the various initiatives undertaken by the public and private sectors, including pharma, to promote the right to health. We will argue that human rights concepts have shaped the use of intellectual property rights and the development of health-related organisational mechanisms in poorer countries.

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