Uncle Sam and Big Pharma (06/03)

If you think the price of lifesaving drugs is outrageous, imagine what it must feel like for the poor in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The lack of affordable drugs is a life and death issue, and many people die every day as a result. Actually, poor countries could have ready access to cheap and affordable drugs to treat diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and Malaria, which kill millions each year. But thanks to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Bush administration, and the powerful transnational pharmaceutical lobby, it is being severely restricted. At the bottom line, trade interests are considered more important than human health and welfare.

This alarming state of affairs was evident in February at an important WTO meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. The US used its veto to block any loosening of the lucrative patent rights the pharmaceutical industry enjoys, and after much debate, 145 delegates gave up on their latest attempt to decide how and when the world’s poor would get access to affordable medicines. As a frustrated Kenyan trade minister saw the situation, “While you people are having this complicated debate, many people are dying.”

Why are Uncle Sam and Big Pharma so intent on stonewalling? It’s simple really: A lot of money is involved. Shortly before the meeting, no less a conservative bastion than the Wall Street Journal reported that the Republicans had been able to take control of the US Congress, thanks, in part, to $50 million in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical lobby. Soon afterward, Congress began weakening the laws on global patent rights that were supposed to make cheap drugs available to poor countries.

Pharmaceutical companies have a big stake in the WTO discussions; they are the primary beneficiaries of intellectual property rights. Last year, US-based drug companies made $36.5 billion in patent rights and royalties, more than half of the world’s total.

Big Pharma claims that protecting their patents is vital to creating incentives for them to spend money on research and development. Critics dismiss the argument, charging the issue is really just profit margins. Current WTO policy limits the trade of generic drugs, which are much cheaper than the brand names. This has severely restricted the ability of poor countries to deal with their many public health crises.

Pharmaceutical companies play hard ball with poor countries who dare to challenge their power. With the support of the Bush administration, for example, 39 of them filed a law suit against South Africa. The crime? South Africa dared to suggest that pharmaceutical multinationals should make cheap generic drugs available to its AIDS sufferers. The lawsuit was withdrawn, however, due to intense pressure from a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) led by Oxfam, Third World Network, Doctors without Borders, and Consumers International.

Since then, nearly 50 developing countries have backed a resolution that would impose a WTO moratorium on legal actions involving public health and Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). But another lawsuit, this one against Brazil, is currently being handled within the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body.

One country that has begun making substantial progress is Kenya, which has decreased the cost of drugs for HIV/AIDS and major public health problems such as pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea, and tuberculosis. This is due to the Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health. Finalized at a recent WTO meeting in Doha, Qatar, it gave countries the authority to issue compulsory licenses to manufacture generic drugs. Those that couldn’t manufacture the drugs themselves were permitted to implement a system allowing them to import from abroad.

Here too, pharmaceuticals companies have gone to work. At last February’s WTO meeting, a proposal limiting the use of compulsory licensing by developing countries to national emergencies was presented. Groups supporting Kenya’s access to affordable drugs charged that the proposal would likely double the price of some essential medicines.

Dr. Chris Stephen Ouma, a spokesperson for Action/AIDs Kenya told journalists in Nairobi, “Here in Kenya we have made great progress in decreasing the cost of drugs for many diseases, not just for HIV/AIDS, but for other major public health problems like pneumonia and diarrheal diseases that kill thousands of Kenyans each year.

“The costs of some life saving drugs have been decreased by as much as half,” he added, “but if the current proposal goes through at the WTO, all these gains will be lost.”

Under that proposal, a public health problem would have to be way out of control before the country could seek a solution. “Wealthy countries do not have to declare a national emergency to make use of the TRIPS safeguards, so why should Kenya and other developing countries have to do so?” asked Oduor Ong’wen, head of EcoNews Africa. “Would African countries have to declare tuberculosis or malaria a national emergency in order to get affordable drugs?”

Nothing happened at Geneva, but the deadlock could disrupt negotiation in other areas. Leaders in other business sectors are concerned that Big Pharma’s stonewalling could cause a repeat of the strong demonstrations that brought WTO deliberations to a standstill in Seattle and disrupted the international organization’s plans three years ago. It could happen again this September when the WTO meets in Cancun, Mexico. There are already signs that a new wave of protests is building. At a run up meeting to Cancun last September in Doha, 35 protesters were arrested. Even in Qatar, a desert monarchy in which most political outbursts are prohibited, the police still had to maintain a tight security cordon around the conference.

In other words, the WTO has reason to worry. Given the stakes for developing countries, struggling to deal with critical public health problems, as well as the WTO’s reputation for protecting the interests of business at the expense of the poor, it’s a good bet that the opposition will continue to build and the world’s most hated international organization will again come under siege.