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HEALTH: Bird Flu Brings Out Double Standards on Drug Patents

Analysis by Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Oct 21 2005 (IPS) - With hardly a hint of shame, voices from the Western world’s political establishment are exhibiting a view that seems to say that the lives of people in the developed world matter more than those that populate the South.

With hardly a hint of shame, voices from the Western world’s political establishment are exhibiting a view that seems to say that the lives of people in the developed world matter more than those that populate the South.

Chuck Schumer, a member of the U.S. Senate from New York, a typical example, has even issued a threat, to pressure the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche to give up its right to protect the patent on Tamiflu, the only drug currently capable of fighting the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus.

As Schumer sees it, since Roche lacks the capacity to produce sufficient amounts of its patented drug in the wake of fears that the world could be hit by a global pandemic if the bird flu virus mutates into one that could be passed from humans to humans, it should license out production to generic manufacturers.

”If they don’t begin to actually licence the patent for Tamiflu to dramatically increase worldwide production, I am going to pursue a legislative remedy a month from today,” he said in a statement, according to media reports from Washington D.C.

”Roche is putting their own interest ahead of world health. They should not be slow-walking this process when we have a potential pandemic that could occur at any time,” Schumer was quoted as saying.


By Thursday, Roche had caved in, agreeing to give the licence to manufacture Tamiflu to four U.S. generic drug manufacturers.

Such enlightened thinking, that public health matters more than Roche’s profit margins, has come only after reports that the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has haunted South-east Asia since January last year, has winged its way into Europe.

European health authorities felt that such a turn of events was sufficient grounds to label bird flu a ”global threat.” And to save its citizens from a potential pandemic-the World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that a deadly influenza virus from bird flu could kill millions- E.U. officials have started talks with the pharamaceutical industry.

Asian countries that have long been affected by bird flu – such as Thailand , where 13 people have died since the virus began infecting the local poultry population last year, and Vietnam’s, the worst hit, with 43 deaths – have not had the same luxury of behaving like political leaders in the U.S. or E.U.

For they, like others in the developing world, are well aware of the fierce defence mounted by the U.S. and the E.U. to protect the patents of drugs produced by the pharma giants, despite such medicines being desperately needed to save the lives of millions in the Third World.

”The reaction in the U.S. and the E.U. is not only double standards at play but one of absurdity too,” Nicola Bullard of Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based think tank, told IPS. ”It is absurd because they want Roche to give up its rights on the patent for a disease that is only a threat and doesn’t exist as a human pandemic.”

There has been no hint of sympathy from the leaders in the U.S. or the E.U. towards people in the developing world who are directly affected by pandemics and have limited access to expensive drugs produced by pharmaceutical companies, she added.

Patients in the developing world who are victims of such discrimination are those suffering from diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis (TB). AIDS killed over three million people last year, a majority of them in Africa, while TB killed two million people and malaria killed one million people.

Only last month, the humanitarian agency Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) wrote to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) about the consequences of greed being placed above human lives when it comes to diseases that affect Third World people.

”The HIV/AIDS crises has shown the urgent need to ensure that essential medicines are available at affordable prices,” MSF wrote to Pascal Lamy, the new director general of the WTO. ”(This will worsen) as the impact of patent protection on HIV programmes becomes (more) apparent in the coming years.”

One of South-east Asia’s poorest countries, Cambodia, is a case in point. As a result of becoming a new member of the WTO last year, it is facing the prospect of losing access to cheap generic anti-AIDS drugs for its HIV patients due to the pressure applied by the U.S. and the E.U. to protect the world’s pharma giants.

Cambodia has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the Asia-Pacific region, with nearly 1.9 percent of adults infected with the killer virus.

Currently, not even half of the six million people who need anti-AIDS drugs have access to them in the developing world, resulting in early death for those infected with the AIDS virus.

In contrast, people with HIV in the developed world are not troubled by a premature death due to the availablity of anti-retroviral drugs that they can afford.

But this is not the first time that the world is witnessing leaders in the West conveniently ignoring a principle they have sanctified -that patents of the pharma giants must be protected- as a result of public health crises in their midst.

Countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and the United States have resorted to violating the international rules governing intellectual property rights when faced with public health emergencies at home.

That was achieved by these governments resorting to ”compulsory licensing,” which is a measure in international commerce that permits a country to break a patent on a drug and get local generic manufacturers to produce a drug. To compensate the patent holder, the generic producer offers a reasonable royalty on the sale of the generic product.

”Until joining the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) in 1992, Canada routinely issued compulsory licenses for pharmacueticals, paying a four percent royalty rate on the net sales price,” a U.N. agency stated in a study some years ago on intellectual property rights. ”Between 1969 and 1992 such licenses were granted in 613 cases for importing or manufacturing generic medicines.”

”In the United States, compulsory licensing has been used as a remedy in more than 100 antitrust cases settlements, including cases involving antibiotics, synthetic steroids and several biotechnology patents,” the report added.

Yet as analysts like Bullard argue, governments in the developing world are denied this privilege, as if the lives of the poor should matter less than those in the affluent West.

The case being made by Schumer will only reinforce such a belief, she adds. ”There is no getting away from the fact that public goods and public health must take precedence over a pharmaceutical corporation’s profits.”

 
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HEALTH: Bird Flu Brings Out Double Standards on Drug Patents

Analysis by Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Oct 21 2005 (IPS) - With hardly a hint of shame, voices from the Western world’s political establishment are exhibiting a view that seems to say that the lives of people in the developed world matter more than those that populate the South.
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