GLOBAL: Global campaign vows to fight MNC drug monopoly

Publisher Name: 
IPS News

Public health
and HIV/AIDS activists from the developing world are seeking to break
the monopoly over drugs held by pharmaceutical giants through a new
global campaign designed to influence international debate over the

Formulated at the end of a three-day meeting, last week,
which brought some 200 participants from 20 countries to the Thai
capital, the campaign seeks ''a new way out of the current patent
system; one that will encourage innovation of new drugs and access for
all,'' says Kannikar Kijtiwatchakul, an organiser of the International
Conference on Compulsory Licensing: Innovation and Access for All.
''What we have now is innovation controlled by the pharmaceutical
industry that lets them have a monopoly on drugs.''

The conference participants -- who came from countries such as
Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Cambodia, the United States
and hosts Thailand -- have a meeting at the World Health Organisation
(WHO) in January 2008 as the first target of the new campaign.

At that meeting the Geneva-based health agency's executive
board may receive a draft of a plan to find a compromise between the
demands of big pharma, which produces patent-brand drugs, and the
world's poor, who have little or no access to the available life-saving
medication due to high prices.

The proposed plan is being drafted by the WHO's
Intergovernmental Working Group on Public Health, Innovation and
Intellectual Property (IGWG), which held a second round of discussions
in early November. ''Our campaign wants to add to the IGWG's work,
because we want to get our views heard at the January meeting,''
Kannikar told IPS.

''At the heart of the plan is finding an optimal way to boost
research and development of affordable healthcare products so people,
particularly in the developing countries, can receive treatment for
diseases, with an emphasis on neglected conditions including
tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS,'' states a background note by
Intellectual Property Watch, a Geneva-based on-line publication,
distributed at the conference.

Papers presented at the conference justified the need for such
a shift, given that the pharmaceutical multi-national corporations
(MNCs) have contributed marginally towards developing new drugs to help
the world's poor. ''Only 10 percent of the total global investment in
pharmaceutical research was directed towards neglected diseases
affecting 90 percent of the world's population,'' noted Jakkrit
Kuanpoth, from the law faculty of the University of Wollongong in
Sydney, Australia.

As revealing were the numbers presented in a paper by Dr. Mira Shiva,
from the non-governmental Health Action International. Shiva said that
between 1975 and 2004, there were 1,556 new active ingredients for
drugs developed by the pharma giants but only 18 were for tropical

''The drug companies don't do some of the innovation that is
most important to developing countries with respect to neglected
tropical diseases,'' Brook Baker, professor of law at Northeastern
University, in Boston, in the U.S., told IPS. ''They put their research
where they make the most money, from rich people in rich countries.
That is where they earn over 90 percent of their research and
development dollars.''

''There should be a new innovation reward system. Developing
countries can and should pay something for innovation, but they should
only be asked to pay for innovation that is most appropriate for
themselves,'' he added.

The activists are bracing for a counter campaign from the
pharmaceutical industry, which presides over an estimated 650 billion
US dollar global market, of which all of southern Asia and south-east
Asia account for only a 1.3 percent share.

Events in Thailand reflect this challenge, since the South-east Asian
country has emerged as a leader in the developing world to take
advantage of global trading rules to secure cheaper, generic drugs for
public health emergencies such as HIV/AIDS.

Over the past year, Bangkok has used provisions available
under the trade related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) to issue
compulsory licences (CL) to break the patents for three drugs, two to
prolong the life of people with HIV and a blood-thinner for heart
patients. The right for developing countries to grant CLs or pursue
parallel imports of generic drugs were approved by at a World Trade
Organisation (WTO) ministerial meeting in Doha, in 2001.

It has consequently enabled some 10,000 Thais living with HIV
who need second-line anti-retroviral (ARVs) drug to live in hope of
receiving affordable medication. Currently, an estimated 140,000 Thais
receive the first-line of ARVs. The country is one that has been among
the worst hit since the pandemic began in the region, with over 600,000
infected with HIV at present and some 300,000 having died due to AIDS
over past two decades.

But as full-page advertisments that appeared in Thai and
English-language newspapers on Friday made clear, the powerful
pharmaceutical industry has other interests at heart. ''New drug
discoveries help doctors save lives'' announced one advertisement to
justify why big pharma should continue to enjoy its monopoly in the
drugs market.

The advertisement placed by the pro-pharma lobby is the latest
in a string of measures aimed at forcing Thailand to give up its right
to issue CLs. The U.S. pharma MNC Abbott Laboratories has also struck
back by withdrawing seven new drugs it had introduced into the market,
including a second-line ARV that can be easily stored in tropical

Even the U.S. government has retaliated against Bangkok,
revealing Washington's interest in protecting its pharmaceutical
industry. The Office of the United States Trade Representative has
placed Thailand on the 'Priority Watch List' for intellectual property
violations and also terminated duty free trade privileges that this
country enjoyed.

''There is absolute double standards being applied here by the
U.S. This is complete hypocrisy because there is no fuss made when
compulsory licenses are issued in the U.S.,'' Robert Weissman, director
of Essential Action, a Washington D.C.-based corporate accountability
organisation, told IPS. ''The U.S. government has an automatic right to
use any patent without any prior negotiations. There are many different
ways in which we do compulsory licensing.''

''It is very important that a country's behaviour be judged
according to international law,'' adds Dr. William Aldis, coordinator
for health policy and research at the WHO's South-east Asia regional
office, located in New Delhi. ''Thailand's is within the provisions of
TRIPS. It is not violating any laws.''

AMP Section Name:Pharmaceuticals