Joining WTO may hinder access to health technologies and medicines

Although Bhutan is still at the negotiation stage on its accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) since 2004, the registrar of Bhutan Medical and Health Council, Sonam Dorji said becoming a member of WTO would not benefit the public and health system in the country.

Sonam Dorji was speaking at a panel discussion on Bhutan’s international trade negotiations yesterday during a workshop on review of Intellectual Property Legal and Policy Coherence to Promote Access to Health Technologies, including medicines in Bhutan. The workshop had about 40 participants but only five members of parliament (MP) attended it even though about 20 MPs had confirmed their attendance.

He said there is a need for good analysis because joining a WTO would mean free access to trade and services. “That’s why in terms of product, we need to be careful because after the transitional period expires, we’ll have to effectively enforce the intellectual property law, which means the cost of medicine would increase,” he said. “The IP law may or may not have the flexibilities and we need to understand what it means and if we would be able to use.”

However, the department of trade’s senior trade officer, Tshewang Dorji T said otherwise. Tshewang Dorji T said that joining WTO would mean Bhutan would become a part of global community and reform economic and trade policies by accessing to WTO.

He said that being a least developed country, WTO would help develop the capacity of trade officials and relevant sectors in Bhutan, which more or less follows the WTO rules and regulations although it is not a member.

“It is too early to tell the impact of WTO on health sector because health and pharmaceutical issues came late at the WTO discussion,” he said. He added that if Bhutan becomes a member, the health sector could have access to specialists from abroad.

Another panelist, a legal consultant based in India, Kajal Bhardwaj, said it is good to continue the national discussion and not to make decisions because it is important to study not only about the WTO impact but also the bilateral pressure from other country members.

Essential Medicines and Technology Division’s Senior Pharmacist, Ugyen Tashi, said that the aim of the workshop was to analyse current laws and policies to assess national priorities and emerging issues in access to healthcare.

He added the analysis of policy and legal framework comprised of an assessment of the available policies and legal instruments, relevant reviews and studies, and interviews with multiple stakeholders. This is because the law does not include a full range of health safeguards necessary to ensure access to affordable generic medicines nor are pharmaceuticals exempted from patents, a right enjoyed by “least developed countries (LDCs)” in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) until 2033.

“Bhutan’s Industrial Property Act, 2001 requires the grant of patents on health technologies with provisions similar to those required by the WTO’s Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) even though Bhutan is not a WTO member,” he said.

Ugyen Tashi added that the workshop would help discuss and examine key challenges to identify the best approaches to promote access to health technologies. “

Healthy Secretary, Dr Ugen Dophu, said that with accession of Bhutan to WTO still on going, the ministry is concerned about its impact on access to health technologies and medicines including the regulations of health services and health professionals in Bhutan.

“We’ll work with the responsible ministries to ensure accession to WTO does not compromise our national priority,” Dr Ugen Dophu said. “We hope that this review would facilitate us in improving access to health technologies and medicines.”

The two-day workshop ends  today.

Yangchen C Rinzin

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