India, Thailand and Philippines must face down conflicts to guarantee affordable medicines

Published: 12 December 2006

Pharmaceutical companies are now embroiled in three high-profile disputes over patents that could have a devastating effect on poor people’s access to affordable medicines, says international agency Oxfam.

The companies – Novartis, Merck and Pfizer – are resisting moves by India, Thailand and the Philippines respectively to use safeguards that are written into World Trade Organization (WTO) intellectual property rules in order to protect public health.

Each company is trying to impose its patent monopoly on a big-selling medicine to stop the countries from exercising their rights to trade in cheaper generic equivalents.

“The industry is fighting hard because developing country markets, especially in Asia, are vital for its future growth and these medicines under dispute are so valuable,” said Celine Charveriat, head of Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair campaign. “These disputes put monopolies and profits over public health, which is exactly what world leaders promised would never be allowed to happen under WTO intellectual property rules.”

Pharmaceutical sales across the world’s four biggest emerging markets, including India, grew by 22.3% in 2005 compared to single digit growth in the US, Europe and Japan. Of the medicines in dispute, Novartis’ anti-blood-cancer drug Glivec is worth $2.1 billion in annual sales and its patent begins to expire in 2013. Pfizer’s hypertension drug Norvasc is worth $4.7 billion in annual sales and it wants to extend its patent that has already begun to expire in some countries.

In a statement prepared for Oxfam, author John le Carre said yesterday:

“Here is what I wrote five years ago in the Afterword to 'The Constant Gardener:'

“As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”

The reality today is worse. By imposing one-to-one deals on individual governments, Big Pharma is dishonoring hard-won international agreements designed to allow lifesaving generic drugs to be produced and marketed in countries where there is urgent and demonstrable need. The present posture of Novartis in India is a classic example of Big Pharma’s unbeautiful priorities. With unlimited legal resources Novartis is challenging India's sovereign right under international law to supply cheap, non-patented drugs in situations where the public health is at risk. If the case succeeds, Novartis will have protected the health of its account books at the expense of those who will die because they can't afford the drugs that could save them. ”

“Since India is the main supplier of inexpensive medicines to the developing world, a victory for Novartis will also curtail access to affordable medicines in Africa and Asia as well,” Charveriat said.

“These three disputes show that the intellectual property system cannot work to protect public health if companies can continue to undermine developing countries from using legitimate health safeguards. In two cases, we have a legal battleground where poor people are losing out to vested interests,” said Charveriat.

Some companies including Merck and Novartis say they can discount prices or donate medicines to poor patients instead. Oxfam says that this is not the long-term solution to sustainable access to affordable medicines and does not cover all patients who need them.

“Donations can help poor people in specific situations, such as disease eradication programs. However, discount programs keep all decisions about who can get medicines and for how long in the hands of the companies. A sustainable and proven way to get affordable medicines to people is by generic competition,” Charveriat said.

”The Philippines, Thailand and India have taken important steps to use public health safeguards to reduce the price of medicines and respond to serious public health problems. They should not be bullied when rightfully applying these rules,” Charveriat said. “We applaud their efforts. They should remain strong against this corporate pressure and the companies should drop their lawsuits and their objections.”

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