Despite a widespread and growing consensus that drug patents should not continue to block access to treatment in poor countries, this issue remains. Two recent examples:
- In Sydney, Australia, 25 countries met to work out a compromise on drug exports to take to the 140 member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The problem that prompted the meeting is that while a country can issue a compulsory license if necessary for its domestic use (manufacturing the drug and paying a small royalty to the patent holder), current rules did not make clear that any other country could export the drug to them. So countries like India or Brazil could issue a compulsory license to manufacture patented drugs for their own use -- but countries that could not manufacture the drugs internally could not obtain them this way. This problem will become critical in 2006, when India and other generic drug-manufacturing countries are required to change their patent laws to the U.S./European system to comply with WTO rules.
When the meeting ended on November 15, Oxfam and MSF (Doctors Without Borders) jointly issued a press release calling the Sydney summit a step back for access to medicines. A key problem with the rules adopted is that the exporting country (as well as the importing country) would have to issue a compulsory license. "This makes the needy importing country unacceptably dependent on the political will of another government, and increases the administrative burden. Potential suppliers would also be under enormous pressure from industrialized countries such as the U.S. and EU not to help out." Compulsory licenses for a pharmaceutical have seldom if ever been issued.
The day the Sydney meeting began, a Washington Post editorial noted, "From a policy point of view, there is no good argument for allowing patents to restrict access to medicine in poor countries and those just climbing out of poverty; patents generally make sense only in richer countries, where consumers can afford the new therapies produced in response to the incentive of patent-protected profits." ("Drugs for the Poor," Washington Post editorial, November 14).
Note Nov. 22: A week after Sydney we are hearing that there was no meeting of the minds, that reports of an informal consensus were exaggerated. The U.S. and European Union want more restriction against overriding pharmaceutical patents in developing countries for public health, while poor countries in Africa and elsewhere want less. And more than a hundred countries that must agree to a final WTO treaty were not in Sydney at all.
- In Nigeria, activists protested a meeting to be held November 20-22 in Abuja, Nigeria, to "decide on the final draft for Nigeria's Intellectual Property (IP) law, which will, among other things, regulate importation of medicines for many of the most common epidemics in Africa, including HIV/AIDS."
According to activists, (from the Treatment Action Movement of Nigeria, AIDS Alliance Nigeria, Journalists Against AIDS Nigeria, and other organizations), the meeting to determine Nigeria's intellectual-property law is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce -- and civil society in Nigeria has been kept out. Activists fear the new law could stop access to antiretrovirals in Nigeria, including the government's new program to make HIV treatment widely available.
"'It is outrageous that such an important meeting as one to draft an IP bill that will have implications on the fate of 3.5 million Nigerians living with HIV/AIDS, is being done without our input,' said Pat Matemilola, president of the Network of People living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (NEPWHAN). 'Considering the great import of decisions that would emanate from this meeting as regards continued access to life-saving treatment, we feel that our lives are being jeopardized by this omission. We demand that the conveners of this meeting call us to the table. Our lives must not be toyed with.'"
(The quotations above are from a November 18 press alert from the Treatment Action Movement.)
ISSN # 1052-4207
Copyright 2002 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.