What is the impact of intellectual property rules on access to medicines? A systematic review

Brigitte Tenni, Hazel Moir, Belinda Townsend, Burcu Kilic, Anne-Maree Farrell, Tessa Keegel, Deborah Gleeson

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Background: It is widely accepted that intellectual property legal requirements such as patents and data exclusivity can affect access to medicines, but to date there has not been a comprehensive review of the empirical evidence on this topic. The World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires Member States to implement minimum standards of intellectual property protection including patents for pharmaceutical products, but also contains ‘flexibilities’ designed to address barriers to access to medicines. National intellectual property laws can also include TRIPS-plus rules that go beyond what is required by TRIPS. We aimed to systematically review literature that measures the impact of intellectual property rules on access to medicines, whether implemented as a result of TRIPS, TRIPS-plus provisions in other trade agreements, or unilateral policy decisions. Methods: We searched Proquest, SCOPUS, Web of Science, PubMed, JSTOR, Westlaw and Lexis Nexis. Peer reviewed articles, government reports and other grey literature were included. Articles were eligible for inclusion if they were quantitative, in English, included a measure of cost, price, availability of or access to medicines, were about intellectual property or data exclusivity rules and published between January 1995 and October 2020. Ninety-one studies met our inclusion criteria. We systematically reviewed the studies’ findings and evaluated their quality using a modified quality assessment template. Results and conclusion: Five broad overarching themes and 11 subthemes were identified based on the articles’ foci. They were: trade agreements (divided into EU FTAs and those that include the USA); use of TRIPS flexibilities (divided into compulsory licencing and parallel importation); patent expiry/generic entry/generic pathway (divided into comparative studies and single country studies); patent policies (also divided into comparative studies and single country studies) and TRIPS-plus rules (divided into data exclusivity, patent term extensions and secondary patenting). Most studies focused not on specific trade agreements, but on TRIPS-plus provisions, which can also be found within some trade agreements. The main finding of this review is that the stronger pharmaceutical monopolies created by TRIPs-plus intellectual property rules are generally associated with increased drug prices, delayed availability and increased costs to consumers and governments. There is evidence that TRIPS flexibilities can facilitate access to medicines although their use is limited to date. There were few studies that included resource poor settings, signalling a need for greater research in such settings where the impact on access to medicines is likely to be more damaging.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-40
    JournalGlobalization and Health
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2022


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