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By Zakumumpa Henry

Disparities between the views of East African community (EAC) member countries are complicating efforts to pass a common intellectual property law that would enable access to antiretrovirals to be scaled- up in the area, a regional meeting of East African Health rights NGOs was told last week (12 April 2012).

The three-day meeting held at the Imperial Botanical Beach hotel attracted participants from Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, the countries that make up the EAC.

Moses Mulumba, an intellectual property expert who conducted the study, said there were many disparities between the member states, which is making the passage of a common ‘TRIPS [trade related intellectual property rights] flexibilities’ compliant law difficult.

Currently, Kenya is regarded as a ‘developing’ country while the rest of the East African member states are regarded as ‘least developed countries’ or LDCs.

Mr Mulumba emphasized that this differention is complicating the making of uniform strategies and laws as developing countries are no longer permitted to manufacture generic antiretrovirals drugs whereas LDCs have a grace period running up to 2016 to do just that and also have the opportunity to reform their laws to permit them to continue manufacturing generic antiretrovirals.

In November 1999, the East African Community Treaty was signed by its member states. This means decisions taken at the EAC level, since they are legally-binding on all member states, supersede those taken at individual member country level. Currently, the proposed East African anti-counterfeit bill (2010) looks set to threaten access to essential medicines due to its intellectual property enforcement stance.

Mr Mulumba also revealed there were differences between government sector ministries in East Africa regarding enforcing intellectual property rights, with East African health ministries taking on a public health focus of enabling access to essential medicines while the trade ministries had a bias of enforcing the protection of business interests and private innovation rights.

Further illustrating the disparities, it was revealed that Kenya already has an act on anti counterfeiting while Uganda has a bill before parliament and Tanzania has regulations made under the trade marks law.

At the meeting, it was also revealed that the different East African countries preferred to move at different paces in reforming intellectual property-associated laws, with Tanzania preferring a slower and more cautious approach.

It was noted at the meeting that in regard to laws relating to intellectual property rights, there is widespread, erroneous mixing of the issue of quality and standards on the one hand and enforcing private rights of innovators and inventors on the other.

Jane Nalunga, Country Director of SEATINI-Uganda, an NGO that seeks to strengthen Africa’s world trade position, called on East African countries to negotiate for fairer international trade laws as an East African block as this gave them better leverage than as individual countries.

Ambassador Nathan Irumba of SEATINI said: ‘’Develop intellectual property laws that are based on your current level of development; ones that won’t strangle indigenous efforts. Japan and China did not hurry to enforce intellectual property rights of foreigners until they had reached a certain level of development themselves. How many East Africans have filed applications for patents?’’

The meeting was hosted by SEATINI-Uganda in partnership with Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) and HAI –Africa with funding from the Open Society Foundation.


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