THE ongoing pandemic busted the myth of invincibility of human advancement, and humbled even the most arrogant of nations. Covid-19 exposed the systemic weaknesses and reminded that nature punishes complacency rather ruthlessly. It dragged the spotlight on some away-from-the-mainstream subjects, like, say, intellectual property rights (IPRs).
The health crisis that rattled the world order actually exposed the perils of power games, intellectual lethargy and the neglect of scientific research. It is hard to imagine the private sector committing big doses of investment to scientific research unless the system promises exclusive premium. The IPR regime offers this security.
The health emergency compelled Western governments to nudge the drug-makers to develop Covid-19 vaccines by pledging to pre-book orders at attractive prices to moderate the commercial risk, and by bending stringent drug certification protocols for quicker rollouts.
The strategy delivered, as, by the end of 2020, multiple vaccines emerged, infusing a new hope. Within months, however, the slow and uneven distribution of vaccines raised new questions on the morality of patent protection for the vaccine-makers. The vaccination tracking bodies found poor countries getting pushed behind in the queue for lack of funds.
‘The toxic IPR scene pollutes the business environment. It dissuades serious local players from directing funds towards research’
The evolving global situation intensified the public interest and debate on the cost and benefit of IPRs. Some developing countries thought the vaccine supply can improve significantly at more economical rates if local companies are permitted to produce the vaccines. To this end, they called on the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to withdraw patent protection to the vaccine makers, such as Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford AstraZeneca, etc. In May this year, the Biden administration in the US threw its weight behind the group and decided to support waiving patent protection for the vaccines.
The drug makers opposed the move fiercely. They argued that a waiver would violate WTO’s agreement on trade-related IPRs (TRIPS). They attributed a weak supply-line coordination to match the global demand for the sorry situation.
“If the government wishes to freely circulate the fruits of years of expensive research by private companies, it should, perhaps, share the cost of the exercise with companies. If not, it has no business to intervene in the market and flout the global deal,” said a trade expert in Pakistan while defending the drug-makers.
The expert, who wished not to be identified, hammered the value of IPRs for development. He regretted weak IPR system in Pakistan, which, he thought, was among the factors that are discouraging foreign investment. “The toxic IPR scene pollutes the business environment. It dissuades serious local players from directing funds towards research and development. Despite low awareness there are hundreds of thousands of cases of patent and trade mark violation pending in courts,” he pointed out.
Representatives of law firms dealing in patents, trademarks and other IPR-related issues confirmed weak administrative setup hindering the effective implementation of IP legal framework.
“In the absence of a competent authority to technically assist the courts on complaints of intellectual property right violations, relief, if given at all, is temporary,” a senior partner said, narrating a host of stories related to multiple cases of IP violations he is dealing with.
“A visit to a registry of trade mark or patent or IPO head office will tell a tale of utter neglect. The IPR board is dysfunctional for the last five years and the autonomous body, the Intellectual Property Organisation (IPO), is rudderless in the absence of leadership,” he said, hinting at multiple vacant posts in the relevant bodies.
Advisor to PM on Commerce Razzak Dawood did not contest the views expressed by the IPR practitioners, but was reluctant to expand on factors hindering the progress in this key area. He did express commitment to fix the broken IPR system in the country.
“We have appointed Aisha Morani, a competent officer well versed in global trade protocols, currently serving as joint secretary overseeing ecommerce at the Ministry of Commerce, as DG IPO. We have also initiated the process of selecting a technically sound candidate for the position of IPO Chairman by placing advertisement in the media,” said the Advisor while promising to share details of his ministry’s initiative on geographical Indicators and the engagement with WTO on trade-related matters. The information, however, did not reach Dawn till filing of the report.
Karim Adni, Managing Partner, Ali Associates, shared loads of material to substantiate his position that the issue has yet to get the official attention the subject deserves. “We have consistently been pleading at every forum to improve the IPR eco system in the country. Perhaps the government is preoccupied with other more pressing challenges, but we hope and pray that the system will soon be fixed to facilitate the expressed goal of business development for progress at an accelerated pace,” he said.
A senior embittered officer of IPO blamed the control freaks in the bureaucracy for the situation. “Instead of promoting officers of the IPO team, officers of different ministries are sent to lead the organisations. They just bide their time. Such appointees are neither capable nor interested in the highly technical world of intellectual property rights. IPO was created as an autonomous body with its own cadre of qualified staff. Instead of strengthening the pool of expertise, it was diluted by mismanagement, leading to confusion surrounding enforcement agencies and weak enforcement of IP laws,” he concluded.
The business forums, such as the Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the American Business Council, the Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, have persistently been pleading for tangible improvements in the IPR system in the country. Background research revealed that several hundred companies in Pakistan are eagerly awaiting a legal remedy on complaints associated with IPR infringements.
The World Bank in its ‘2021 Investment Climate Statements: Pakistan’ comments: “Despite a relatively open formal regime, Pakistan remains a challenging environment for investors, with foreign direct investment (FDI) declining by 29 per cent in the first half of 2020-21 compared to that same time period in 2019-20. An improving but unpredictable security situation, lengthy dispute resolution processes, poor intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement, inconsistent taxation policies, and lack of harmonisation of rules across Pakistan’s provinces have contributed to lower FDI compared to the regional competitors. The government aims to grow FDI to $7.4 billion by 2022-23 from $2.56bn in 2019-20”
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 9th, 2021