Swine flu patients should come before patents and profits

The World Health Organization should encourage greater competition between drug companies to ensure poor countries can afford to stockpile medicines effective against swine flu, Oxfam will tell the World Health Assembly this week.

Many poor countries cannot afford to create significant stockpiles of oseltamivir (brand name Tamiflu), currently sold by Roche at $16 per course of treatment to developing nations.

Oxfam is urging the WHO to use its pre-qualification scheme to encourage other companies to produce generic versions of the drug and to support developing countries that want to buy them. A similar approach to ARVs used to treat HIV helped reduce their price from $10,000 per patient per year to well under $100.

Dr. Mohga Kamal-Yanni, Oxfam senior health adviser, said: “Many developing countries are woefully ill-prepared to deal with a flu pandemic, with health budgets already under pressure from the economic crisis and stretched to breaking point attempting to cope with HIV and other existing health emergencies.

“The WHO can play a crucial role by doing two things: one is persuading donors and governments to invest in strong public health systems. The second is ensuring that developing countries can afford the medicines that could save thousands of lives if, as expected, this strain of flu continues to spread around the globe.”

Cipla, a drug company based in Mumbai, recently won a legal case in India allowing it to produce its own version of oseltamivir (brand name Antiflu). The WHO has now approved Antiflu for use but patent laws restrict its sale to other countries. Antiflu is currently priced at about $10 per course.

Mohga Kamal-Yanni said: “The WHO must support countries that wish to waive Tamiflu patents. Furthermore, at a time when the health of many poor people is at risk, pharmaceutical companies must respect the right of developing countries to use legal safeguards to import generic versions of medicines that could protect public health.” 

“Drug companies should not be allowed to put their profits ahead of the lives of poor people. Patients are more important than patents.”

Roche this week donated 5.65 million packs of Tamiflu to the WHO. But Oxfam warned that this was nowhere near enough to meet developing country needs and would not provide a sustainable solution to the problem of unaffordable medicines.

Oxfam also warned that the search for a vaccine for this strain of flu - and other diseases that could develop into global pandemics - must be conducted in ways that ultimately allow for equitable distribution of vaccines to all countries.

Oxfam is concerned with recent reports that rich countries have already placed massive orders for a future vaccine, leaving little possibility for developing countries to gain supplies.

The threat of a flu pandemic and the need for affordable medicines will be hot topics at the World Health Assembly that begins on Monday in Geneva, Switzerland.

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