The WTO Ministerial Conference is a meeting of the organization's highest-level decision making body. The fourth WTO Ministerial Conference was carried out in Doha, Qatar, in November 2001 and the outcomes of the meeting are referred to as the Doha Declaration.
During this meeting, the problems of developing countries in implementing the WTO agreements, notably the TRIPS agreement, were discussed, along with the interpretation of TRIPS and its relationship with other international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.
One of the most important outcomes of the meeting related to public health. Since the implementation of the TRIPS Agreement, one of the main issues of concern which has arisen is how to ensure that patent protection for pharmaceutical products does not prevent people in poor countries from having access to medicines.
To address this issue, the Ministers at the Doha meeting put forward a public health declaration which stressed that the TRIPS agreement must be interpreted in a way that supports public health via the easy accessibility to existing medicines and the creation of new medicines. It emphasized that the TRIPS Agreement does not prevent member governments from acting to protect public health and affirmed their right to use compulsory licensing (where a third party is allowed to reproduce the patented process or product under license) and parallel importing.
The separate declaration on health set forward two specific tasks for the TRIPS council. They were:
- to find a solution to the problems countries may face in using compulsory licensing if a country has little or no pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity; and
- to extend the exemptions on pharmaceutical patent protection for LDCs until 2016.
While the issue of public health was a major concern at this Conference, the Doha Declaration also instructed the TRIPS Council to continue with the review of Article 27.3 (b) of the TRIPS agreement and to examine the limitations and potential problems which surround the issue of granting IP protection of traditional knowledge. The progress on these revisions and examinations was to be reported at the fifth Ministerial Conference in Mexico in September 2003, but this meeting broke down over disagreements on agriculture subsidies.
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