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WTO must support access to medicines for poor countries

Patent system an obstacle to new vaccines and medicines

Bangkok, Thailand – The World Trade Organization (WTO) should step up support for developing countries’ seeking greater access to medicines through the use of WTO flexibilities, international agency Oxfam said today. The WTO could play a crucial role in preventing pharmaceutical companies and their governments from thwarting such efforts. Broader use of flexibilities is necessary to ensure that medicines, whether to treat non-communicable or infectious diseases, are affordable and available in poor countries.

In a letter addressed to WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy on Monday [Jan 12], Oxfam praised Lamy for his recent acknowledgement that although access to affordable medicines has been improved, intellectual property rules often remain a key barrier to progress.

However, “the Director General’s speech did not fully recognize the extent to which intellectual property rules threaten access to affordable medicines,” said Rohit Malpani, Oxfam Senior Campaigns Advisor. “In reality, the pressure upon developing countries remains intolerably high. This is unacceptable and constitutes a grave risk to the integrity of the TRIPS framework, the WTO’s agreement on intellectual property”.

The Thai example was a case in point, said Oxfam Thailand Programme Officer, Chalermsak Kittitrakul. Multinational drug companies and developed countries, especially the United States, European Union and Switzerland, have censured Thailand for using compulsory licensing, a safeguard under WTO rules to reduce prices for medicines needed to treat HIV and AIDS, heart disease and cancer patients.

The Thai government’s decision in 2008 to issue compulsory licensing for the anti-retroviral medicine Kaletra, patented by Abbot Laboratories, provoked retaliation and condemnation from the drug company, which withdrew the registration of seven new drugs in Thailand. Abbot Laboratories, along with US and EU governments, has filed a complaint to the Thai government demanding an end to Thailand’s compulsory licensing policy.

In addition, a French-based Sanofi-Aventis, which owns the anti-platelet drug Clopidogrel, marketed as Plavix, assigned its law firm to send letters to an Indian generic-drug company, threatening a legal action if the firm supplied Clopidogrel to Thailand.

“This on-going pressure demonstrates why the WTO should play a more significant role in clarifying the use of flexibilities and providing institutional support for their introduction and use,” said Chalermsak.

“More countries will need to use compulsory licensing or similar measures to improve public healthcare in the future, but pharmaceutical companies and developed countries are using everything at their disposal to ensure that poor countries cannot use these legal safeguards, he said.

Furthermore, little had been done to ensure that TRIPS flexibilities are used for a broader range of diseases. In recent years, drug manufacturers and their backers in the US and EU have tried to limit the application to only HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Finally, Oxfam called upon the Direct General to recognize one other crucial shortcoming of the patent-based system as it will not stimulate innovation for diseases prevalent in the developing world.

“The last 30 years have witnessed major strides in providing improved medical care across the developed world,” said Malpani. “However, very few new vaccines and medicines that address the needs of poor countries have been produced because they do not generate huge profits.”

“Oxfam expects the WTO to invest considerable resources towards ensuring global innovation truly meets the needs of all people, including the poorest”.

ENDS

For more information contact:

Chalermsak Kittitrakul, Programme Officer, Bangkok
O: +66 (0) 2 632 0033
M: +66 (0) 89 499 4641

Rohit Malpani: Senior Campaigns Advisor, New York
M: + 1 202 415 5533

NOTES:

– Compulsory licensing is one of the flexibilities available under the TRIPS Agreement to protect public health. Under WTO rules, a country can issue a compulsory license to override a patent, thereby enabling affordable, generic production of a medicine to protect public health.

– In Thailand, compulsory licensing was used to ensure access to new, 2nd line anti-retroviral medicines (ARVs), which are needed by HIV positive patients when they develop resistance to first line anti-retroviral medicines. Compulsory licensing was also used to reduce prices for key medicines to treat cancer and heart disease, which are two of the leading causes of death and disability in Thailand. Due to compulsory licensing, thousands of additional patients are now on treatment with these medicines.

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