on US policy change on generic drugs
in today's Business Day in South Africa report that the
US trade representative to the WTO has 'backed down' on
their resistance to the importation and manufacture of generic
clearly early days and we hope to be getting some more information
on this apparent change in policy. In the highly charged
debate surrounding drug patents and access to drugs, it
is essential to be reminded of a few facts first.
are not actually blocking access?
Many drug activists have continuously claimed that drug
patents mean that research based drug companies can charge
exorbitant prices for drugs and deny millions of poor
people access to drugs. Yet, in most of Africa there are
hardly any drug patents at all. Research by Amir Attaran
and Lee Gillespie White shows that there is no relationship
between the degree of drug patents and access to drugs.
If drug patents were actually blocking access to drugs,
then in those countries with fewer patents we should see
greater access and vice versa. Yet this is not the case.
real barriers to access
As over 99% of the WHO list of essential drugs is off
patent, and access remains abysmally low, we should be
looking elsewhere for the real barriers to access. In
most poor countries, these problems are a lack of health
infrastructure, appalling poverty and governments that
are not interested in improving healthcare. In many African
countries, tax revenues and donor funds are misused by
politicians and bureaucrats, almost always to their personal
is up in India
India has a great and very successful generic drugs industry.
This industry has lobbied long and hard for relaxation
of drug patent laws so that it can expand its already
highly profitable market. Pandering to any special interest
group is never a sound basis for policy making. Unfortunately
in this case it is being promoted as a positive, life-saving
move for poor countries. Yet none of India's huge and
very profitable generics drug companies are doing anything
to build the essential health infrastructure in Africa
- unlike the research based drug companies. Generics play
a crucial role in any health system, but these supposed
Robin Hoods of the drugs industry simply dump their rip
off drugs in Africa with little regard to how they will
be stored, distributed and used.
On a recent trip to Kenya, I learnt that less than half
of the available anti-retrovirals are actually patented.
Kenya has a successful generic drugs industry, yet none
of these companies has shown any interest in producing
these unpatented drugs (which they could do quite legally).
The reason is that these drugs are expensive to produce
and there is no demand for them because of extreme poverty
and because Daniel Arap Moi's government (which hopefully
will be voted out of power today) has spend the last 30
years robbing the treasure of vital health care funds.
It is interesting to note that the anti-retroviral therapies
that are being distributed are those produced by Merck
and other research based drug companies, and distributed
free of charge. So much for profitable western drug companies
blocking access to drugs.
we don't welcome this reported change in policy
Pressure has been put on the US to change a policy that
is not doing harm and that is important for drug companies.
Patents are not the major barrier to access, and yet they
provide important security to drug companies. We need
these companies to continue to do their research and develop
new drugs. The worrying decline in the development of
new ARV molecules tends to suggest that they are no longer
keen to devote the billions of dollars of research funds
into this area. Recently many research drug companies
have been involved in research for malaria drugs. Will
this continue if their intellectual property can be overridden?
We need drug companies to see Africa as a positive environment
in which to make money, not a basket case worthy of charitable
donations. The only long term way to build our health
infrastructure is to grow rich. This is not going to happen
with intellectual property being undermined, and this
policy is especially ill conceived as IPR is not reponsible
for denying people access to life saving drugs.
Director, Africa Fighting Malaria