16 September 2002
Taking on the drug dealers
A government-commissioned report could pave the way to saving the lives of millions in poor countries
Every now and then, something happens to make the most cynical of us think that maybe this could one day, after all, become a better, even if not the best, of all possible worlds. That it's not naïve to believe there could be justice, fair play and equal life chances for rich and poor.
Most people will have missed what's happened, because it is a "good news" story, so the headlines were small. But the consequences could be large. It could help save the lives of millions in the poor countries of Africa and elsewhere who are at the moment under the death sentence of HIV infection.
Medicines could keep them alive, but although those medicines have come down in price dramatically, they are not low enough for someone who can barely feed his or her family. One very important barrier to rock-bottom prices is the patent system. For developing a drug, the giant pharmaceutical companies are rewarded with 20 years' protection, enabling them to recoup their costs through high prices and substantial profits. Fair enough in the monied, northern hemisphere. Fatal in the south.
For years, the pharmaceutical companies and the governments of countries like ours, which enjoy the taxes they pay and the jobs they guarantee, have insisted that the patent system is the lifeblood of the industry. Without it, there would be no R&D for new drugs. But today a commission will present a report to Clare Short, the international development secretary, which states loud and clear that patents can be bad for poor countries.
All sorts of things are remarkable about this. On the commission on intellectual property rights sat not only lawyers, scientists and a bio-ethicist, but a senior director from the drug company Pfizer. For all that the Association for the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) is now making distressed noises, this person's core involvement suggests the radical road the report lays out would not do such serious harm to the industry.
And then there is the interesting position of the British government. The Department for International Development set up the commission and is understood to be pleased with the report. Yet the government as a whole has always inclined to the interests of the pharmaceutical companies which are so important to the economy. The performance and innovation unit of the cabinet office, which has looked at patent issues, has said they are vital to research and development. Yet the commission, facing up to the fact that big pharma is not interested in R&D for diseases that kill people in developing countries, is prepared to slaughter the sacred cow.
It could be argued that patents do not necessarily encourage innovation at all - even in the developed world. Sometimes they block scientists from going down promising avenues of research. Sometimes they force companies to fight each other in court, wasting potentially millions of pounds.
Certainly they do not, and will not, entice the drug companies to invent new medicines for diseases of poor people; the report says the only way to do that is to spend public money.
At the heart of the patent issue is the trade and intellectual property rights (Trips) agreement of the World Trade Organisation, due to be ratified by the poorest countries by 2006.
Effectively, Trips transfers a patent system designed to protect technologies and drugs in affluent northern countries lock, stock and barrel to the poor southern nations. Who has most to gain? The commission says that Trips is not always appropriate, and that poorer countries should be allowed to set up levels of intellectual property protection that are right for them.
Most important of all, there have to be ways for poor countries with rampaging disease - not just Aids, but malaria, TB and other scourges - to bypass patents. Not only should they be allowed to make cheap generic versions of patented drugs themselves, but they should also be permitted to buy generics made elsewhere if they do not have the capacity at home.
The commission is not preaching the overthrow of capitalism. It does not want to damage the pharmaceutical industry.
It says that patents are important and must be respected in wealthy countries; but they operate against the interests of the poor, who must be allowed a way out.
Of course, the industry does not agree. "Patents are essential if new medicines are to be developed to fight disease in both the developed and developing world," responded the ABPI bluntly.
No doubt ministers are already being lobbied. But the fact that the report even exists hints that there may have been a shift in thinking within government - a willingness to put humanity ahead of the old cosiness with the drug giants. Clare Short should today take the credit for setting up the commission. With the backing of the rest of the government, the UK could take a lead on patents and poverty and make a real difference to the worst-off people on the planet.
© The Guardian,16 September 2002.
Note: The Guardian kindly waived its fee for permission to use this article.
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