Parallel imports are imports of a patented or trademarked product from a country where it is already marketed. For example, in Mozambique 100 units of Bayer’s ciprofloxacin (500mg) costs US$740, but in India Bayer sells the same drug for US$15 (owing to local generic competition). Mozambique can import the product from India without Bayer’s consent.
According to the theory of exhaustion of intellectual property rights, the exclusive right of the patent holder to import the protected product is exhausted, and thus ends, when the product is first launched on the market. When a state or group of states applies this principle of exhaustion of intellectual property rights in a given territory, parallel importation is authorized to all residents in the state in question. In a state that does not recognize this principle, however, only the patent holder who has been registered has the right to import the protected product.
Sometimes referred to as “grey market” imports, parallel imports often takes place when there is differential pricing of the same product – either brand-name or generic drugs – in different markets (usually owing to local manufacturing costs or market conditions). The Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement explicitly states that this practice cannot be challenged under the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement system and so is effectively a matter of national discretion.
Parallel imports can reduce the price of health products and pharmaceuticals by introducing competition. However, they can also affect the negotiation of tiered pricing regimes with pharmaceutical companies. If a private pharmaceutical company agrees to sell a product at a lower price in poor countries, it will need some assurance that the cheaper product will not be imported back into its rich country markets, undercutting its profits (product diversion).