International intellectual property (IP) law for pharmaceuticals has fundamentally shifted in the twenty-first century from a property-centric to a human rights view. Scholars tend to explain this transformation in the context of both the power struggle between developing and developed countries, and the influence of a social movement that criticized IP rights as hindering access to essential medicines. Yet, these explanations leave out the central role of two international organizations, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and particularly their permanent staffs, whose boundary disputes have shaped international IP law at the intersection of trade and global health. Bringing into conversation historical and legal literatures on global health and IP, this article traces how a human rights perspective on IP emerged as a strategy to reconcile the WHO staff’s socio-medical views of health with an increasingly dominant set of global IP rules. It shows how the WHO staff used the language of economics-an analytical frame favored by the WTO-to advance a then unorthodox economic understanding of IP as a type of governmental regulation. This allowed the WHO to argue that states should enjoy regulatory autonomy to curtail IP rights in order to meet broader state objectives, such as human rights protection. Paradoxically, despite their divergent views on the nature of IP, both WTO and WHO engagement with it heralded the emergence of a new technocratic view of global health that focuses on patentable medicines and technologies, and that has ultimately turned away from the WHO’s socio-medical roots.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cultural Studies
- Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)