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MEDICINE-PHILIPPINES: Who Really Discovered Erythromycin ? (1) An Inter Press Service Feature

Johanna Son

MANILA, Nov 9 1994 (IPS) - In 1949, Filipino doctor Abelardo Aguilar was testing micro-organisms he had isolated from soil samples in his back garden when he chanced upon bacteria that would later lead to the development of the antibiotic erythromycin.

Aguilar was then working for the U.S. pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly Co., which has since earned billions of dollars by marketing the drug under its brand-name, Ilosone.

The Filipino doctor tried but failed for 40 years to get some royalty for his work. He died last year at age 76. Now, his family wants Eli Lilly to pay up to 500 million dollars in royalty and says it will set up a health care trust for rural Filipinos.

For Third World experts Aguilar is a symbol of the double- standards in international patent laws that let Western transnationals profit from patent laws derived from indigenous knowledge, scientific expertise or biodiversity found in developing countries — all in the name of intellectual property rights.

Erythromycin is used to treat respiratory and skin and soft tissue infections. It can also be administered to patients suffering from primary syphilis but are allergic to penicillin.

Eli Lilly Philippines has declined to comment on the case, but a spokesman, Amador Astodillo, said he had sent newspaper reports on Aguilar’s story to the firm’s U.S. office. Astodillo told local press the Manila office has no jurisdiction over royalty payment issues.

Aguilar’s fate was made public this week by Philippine Health Secretary Juan Flavier. Aguilar’s kin had approached the official for help in their bid to collect royalties from Eli Lilly for the deceased doctor’s scientific contributions.

“Dr Aguilar has contributed so much in the discovery of erythromycin. It is sad to hear that he got nothing out of it,” remarked Flavier, who said he would write to Eli Lilly’s headquarters in the United States to back the Aguilar family’s claim.

The case has acquired added significance at a time when the Philippine Congress is still mulling on whether or not to ratify the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Filipino activists oppose GATT ratification, citing loopholes in the rules for intellectual property rights. Some say Aguilar’s case is a stark example of what can happen when the North is allowed to gain the upper hand in such matters.

 
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