More than a third of the world's population has no access to essential drugs. More than half of this group of people live in the poorest regions of Africa and Asia. Several factors determine the accessibility of drugs in developing countries. Hardly any medicines for tropical diseases are being developed, but even existing drugs are often not available to the patients who need them.
One of the important determinants of access to drugs is the working of the patent system. This paper first maps out some facts about the global patent regime that has emerged as a consequence of the conclusion of the WTO-TRIPs Agreement in 1994. Attempts to construct a moral justification of the patent system have been based on three grounds: natural rights, distributive justice, and utilitarian arguments. This paper examines to what extent and on which grounds drug patents can be justified. The final section looks at the so-called ‘Doha Declaration on the TRIPs Agreement and Public Health’, which was adopted by the WTO Ministerial Conference two years ago, recognising the primacy of public health over the interests of patent proprietors.