16 September 2002
on the drug dealers
report could pave the way to saving the lives of millions in poor
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
is not preaching the overthrow of capitalism. It does not want to
damage the pharmaceutical industry.
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.
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.
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.
The Guardian kindly waived its fee for permission to use this article.