On October 1, Daren Tang from Singapore marked the start of a six-year term as Director-General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). His appointment comes at a critical time for the organization and the future of intellectual property (IP) protections, as the world works tirelessly to find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Founded in 1967, WIPO plays an essential role in promoting and protecting critical IP rights. These rights incentivize research and development (R&D) and spur innovation that has the potential to transform society. In fact, the Organization was founded to ensure “the protection of intellectual property throughout the world through cooperation among States and, where appropriate, in collaboration with any other international organization.” As the lead United Nations agency responsible for intellectual property, WIPO must therefore must be centrally involved in all training, capacity building, and policy recommendations on IP produced by any UN body.
As innovators race to research, develop and produce breakthroughs to conquer COVID-19, WIPO’s role as an IP champion has perhaps never been more important. Today IP is enabling and facilitating unprecedented global collaboration in the search for new therapeutics and vaccines. The private sector in particular is bringing to bear its enormous capacity for biomedical research – a capacity that exists solely because of IP.
WIPO’s previous Director-General, France Gurry, recognized this value of IP and even spoke out against those who claimed, wrongly, that IP was inhibiting the fight against COVID-19. Director-General Gurry emphasized earlier this year that, “at the present time…there does not appear to be any evidence that IP is a barrier to access to vital medical [COVID-19] preventive measures[.]” He explained that “focusing on access to non-existent vaccines, treatments or cures, rather than the encouragement of needed innovation, at this stage, may not only represent a misunderstanding of the sequencing of innovation and access, but also create a disincentive to investment in needed innovation.”
New WIPO Director-General Tang has an opportunity to reaffirm and strengthen the Organization’s role as a strong voice for IP. WIPO can continue to advocate for IP as a vital incentive for the intensive R&D needed to facilitate COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, as well as to prepare the world for future pandemics and health challenges.
As new COVID-19 treatments become available, WIPO can continue to play a vital role. WIPO may be able to assist in the extraordinary challenge of the rapid scale-up of manufacturing and distribution of new medicines and vaccines. Working in close partnership with the private sector and international organizations such as the Medicines Patent Pool, WIPO can help ensure arrangements are found to ensure patients everywhere have access to safe, affordable, and effective medicines and vaccines.
WIPO already has a strong track record of this kind of multi-stakeholder collaboration, particularly with the private sector. For example, WIPO has successfully partnered with drug companies through its Re:Search initiative, which allows makes it easier for researchers to companies’ libraries of molecules that might be repurposed to fight neglected tropical diseases, malaria and tuberculosis. WIPO also helped spearhead with industry the groundbreaking Pat-INFORMED database to facilitate easy access to medicine patent information. Director-General Tang should continue and deepen these partnerships with the private sector.
Put simply, the innovation ecosystem is supported and carefully balanced by thoughtful and well-protected IP frameworks. For decades, IP rights have served to incentivize and protect innovation. The collective quest to bring new approaches to address the pandemic to market is no exception. Director-General Tang – who already has a strong record of understanding the extraordinary role of IP protections – has a one-in-a-generation opportunity to reaffirm and strengthen WIPO’s ability to carry out its founding mission.