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HEALTH: EU Blocking Medicines for the Poor

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Oct 20 2009 (IPS) - The European Union is intercepting big shipments of medicines on their way to poorer countries, according to a new report published Tuesday.

The generic medicines, coming mostly from India and headed for Latin American countries, have been intercepted and blocked on the grounds of alleged infringement of intellectual property rights.

A report produced jointly by Oxfam and the independent Health Action International says the generic shipments are legitimate under WTO rules.

India and Brazil are due to file a complaint against the Netherlands before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) after it seized a shipment of anti-HIV drugs headed from India via Europe to Brazil, Colombia and Nigeria.

"Although in transit, the patent law of the EU member state was called on by the right holder, and this was also the basis of the detainment by Dutch customs," Sophie Bloemen from Health Action International told IPS by phone from Brussels.

Since late last year Germany and the Netherlands have made customs seizures of 19 shipments of generic medicines bound for developing countries, the report says. Of the last 17 shipments, 16 were from India and one from China.

Of these 17 shipments, five were headed for Peru, four for Colombia, two each for Ecuador and Mexico, and one each for Portugal, Spain, Brazil and Nigeria.

Many of these medicines are urgently needed to treat life-threatening conditions such as AIDS.

The medicines included 30,000 pills that are AIDS inhibitors,100,000 pills of cardiologic medicines, 500,000 pills to treat schizophrenia, and 94,000 pills to help treat dementia, according to customs information made available to IPS by Health Action International.

The seizures are dubious to begin with – and may not serve the intended purpose either.

"The EU has argued it needs to check for counterfeits as these are dangerous for public health," Bloemen tells IPS. "But counterfeits actually relate to a trademark infringement, not a patent infringement.

"So these are two different things, and you check for them in a different way too. Actually customs officials are incapable of checking adequately for patent infringement as it requires lab tests."

The European Union is putting the interests of big drug companies before people who cannot access essential medicines, the report says. The EU's actions undermine its obligations to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as well as World Trade Organisation agreements, it says.

"The EU is increasing pressure on developing country governments to surrender their rights to obtain affordable, generic medicines in order to protect public health, even though these rights are guaranteed under global trade rules," the report says.

The EU is also insisting on tough new intellectual property rules in bilateral free trade deals that go beyond the WTO's existing Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the report says.

"The EU is pushing these measures that will result in higher medicine prices in developing countries at the same time it is trying to reduce domestic medicine prices," the report says. "Twenty-four out of 27 EU member states have taken steps to implement price controls for medicines."

Companies making the complaints leading to the seizure of generic drugs may not themselves have a clean record. "The European Commission is carrying out a high profile investigation into the pharmaceutical industry for intellectual property abuses in the European Union, and is contemplating action against these companies," the report says.

"The EU is guilty of double standards," says Elise Ford, Oxfam head of EU advocacy. "One rule for the rich and another for the poor. A crackdown on European pharmaceutical prices is happening alongside a concerted effort to further push intellectual property rules that prevent poor countries from buying affordable medicines."

The EU's policies are increasing the cost of medicines, according to the report. "This is hitting the poorest people in developing countries disproportionately hard, as 20-60 percent of their health budgets are spent on medicines."

"Millions of poor people have to pay for medicines out of their own pockets, so even a small price rise can make them unaffordable," says Ford. "Europe's policies are directly responsible for this scandal."

The EU's trade policies demand that developing countries protect the interests of drug companies above public health priorities, and the EU demands exceed even those made by the much-criticised U.S. administration of former president George W. Bush, the report says.

The report details a number of other EU policies that it says are damaging access to medicines in developing countries. These include:

– promotion of a new global framework to enforce intellectual property rules which delay access to generic medicines in developing countries, including through seizures of legitimate medicines;

– obstructing progress at the World Health Organisation towards new models of research and development that meet health needs in developing countries;

– spending on research and development for developing countries that remains insufficient in spite of increases in recent years.

While the EU is increasing funding to improve healthcare for European citizens, it is denying developing countries the affordable medicines they need to ensure good health, the report points out.

"It's time that the EU joins up its policies. Both the European Commission (the executive arm of the EU) and member states must promote access to healthcare in their development policies and access to affordable medicines through their trade policy," says Ford.

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