Least developed countries will not have to abide by intellectual property laws for the next 13 years, under the World Trade Organisation agreement, but Bangladesh will get the benefit only for 6 years.
This is because Bangladesh is marching towards graduation from the LDC status by 2026.
The pharmaceutical industry in particular will suffer because WTO's Trade-Related
Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights [TRIPS] Council on 29 June could not reach a consensus that LDCs will not be bound to TRIPS rules for 12 years after their graduation to developing nations.
Before the WTO'S general council on 26 and 27 July, Debapriya Bhattacharya, distinguished fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, recommended that the government should strive to retain the benefits for the longest period possible.
At a discussion on Saturday on plausible outcomes of Bangladesh's graduation, he said that if TRIPS agreement on general intellectual property were not extended, all LDCs will be forced to follow everything that the relevant law said except for three provisions.
Without an extension of TRIPS for the pharmaceutical sector, the government will have to withdraw its control over medicine imports. If that happens, Debapriya said, small manufacturers would lose their business in a more competitive environment.
Besides, getting patents will become compulsory, giving rise to an increase in drugs' prices
"People's expenditure on medicines will go up. Already, two-third of healthcare spending is borne by individuals," Debapriya said.
The government should put in all-out efforts in negotiating the benefits in the next two weeks before the WTO general council.
He felt that Bangladesh should broach the issue to politically influential countries.
Countries and organisations who are development partners of Bangladesh should be made aware of logical grounds for the benefits to continue, he said. Bangladeshi ambassadors in Washington, Brussels, London and Tokyo, alongside the one in Geneva will have to be active in that.
Extension of general TRIPS benefits for 35 nations
While Chad placed the proposal on behalf of the LDC Group in the WTO, a large number of member states went on record to appreciate the constructive role played by the Bangladesh delegation in this regard, said Debaprio.
Thirty-five LDCs, including Bangladesh, will be benefited from that. Without the extension, all provisions of TRIPS would have to be complied with, except for equal treatment at the national level of all investments, equal opportunity for all foreign investments and following rules of all intellectual property companies.
Three reasons for no extension of TRIPS for pharmaceuticals
Debapriya said the first reason was that the countries that had opposed the extension considered 12 years a long time. "They do not think it is rational to give such a long time to the nations that are awaiting graduation."
Representatives of many countries said not all LDCs would require continuation of waiver of TRIPS implementation for their pharmaceutical industries.
Debapriya said that since LDCs to be graduated were not categorised and for the legal limitations of the WTO, it would be difficult to continue enjoying the benefits.
Waiver under TRIPS for Covid
Against the backdrop of Covid-19, Debapriya said he considered the TRIPS waiver on medicines, equipment and technologies tied to Covid-19 for three years a big opportunity.
He said the country might be able to produce Covid vaccines, taking advantage of the opportunity. The government should try to find out if the scope can be explored to get more health benefits.
The US and the European Union are in favour of the proposal placed by India and South Asia. Apart from the LDC group, 60 members of WTO are also supportive of the proposal.
Flawed discussions over LDC graduation
Debapriya said he thought Bangladesh's preparation and discussions centing on graduation were extremely cautious and dependent on export-oriented readymade garment industry.
"No discussion is there on how we should adapt to the evolving situation, what organisations to be set up, what regulations should be formulated and what kind of protection to be given."
Alongside the export market, the domestic market of agriculture and other sectors will also come under increasing pressure, he said, adding that subsidies on agriculture and incentives to industries might be stopped after the graduation.
But agricultural subsidies must continue and industries must get benefits so they can flourish.
Intellectual property not getting priority
Though the matter of intellectual property is significant, it is getting least attention. A handful of people having expertise in intellectual property have not been engaged in the discussion on Bangladesh's graduation from LDC status, Debapriya said.
He said that to survive the fourth industrial revolution, the country has to give more importance to intellectual property.
World receipts of charges for the use of intellectual property totalled $409 billion in 2019. Average worker in an IP-intensive industry earns about 46% more than counterparts in a non-IP industry.
The management of intellectual property rights in Bangladesh is divisive, Debapriya said. The Ministry of Culture is in charge of copyright management while the trademark office is in the industry ministry. And there is no scope of registering IT and technological inventions, he added.
"The most neglected area in this case is the concerns of intellectual property rights (IPR). Available IPR expertise in Bangladesh is possibly least mobilised in the context of articulating LDC Transition Strategy for the country," Dr Debapriya said.
No IPR issue beyond TRIPS Pharma Waiver attracts attention, he mentioned.
"Even here, we pursue a benign defensive strategy (asking for more transition time), not an constructively operative strategy to prepare the country for the post-transition phase," he said, stressing that Bangladesh needs to actively embed IP issues in its LDC transition strategy.