Unhealthy Patents

by Wole Akande

Dissident Voice
January 2, 2003


The failure of the latest round of negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to come to an international agreement to allow poor countries to buy cheap drugs, guarantees that 2003 will be another miserable year for millions of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis patients in poor countries in Africa and elsewhere. According to the BBC, although 143 countries agreed to the deal, the United States blocked the international agreement because, according to U.S. negotiators, the deal would allow too many drug patents to be ignored.


For many, the realization that the absence of an international agreement on patent-free drugs is contributing to the deaths of millions of people around the world is infinitely sad and depressing. Of course, the issue of patent-protected drugs is not new, for as long as we can remember, multinational pharmaceutical companies -- often backed by their mother Western governments -- have defended the patent system because it allows them to protect their products and recover the high costs of developing new drugs.


The companies argue that patents are their lifeblood -- unless they have the monopoly right to market their inventions for a fixed period, there is no point investing huge amounts in researching and developing new remedies. The actual costs of manufacturing most drugs aren't huge -- without patents, competitors could rip off their inventions and they would never recoup their investment.


As a result of this argument, regularly reinforced through arm-twisting on the donor front, poor countries like Nigeria have been compelled to rely on patented (branded) medicines manufactured by Western pharmaceuticals, even when cheaper alternatives exist in India, Brazil and other countries.


A report by a Norwegian pharmacist commissioned by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said that some patented (branded) drugs are even priced higher in African countries than in the Nordic countries, which have substantially higher resources for their health systems.


Until the creation of the WTO in 1995, few poor countries had intellectual property laws, and countries like Egypt, Thailand and India developed thriving generic drug industries. Competition from generic manufacturers like India's Cipla does not appear to have threatened the industry -- pharmaceuticals is one of the industrialized world's most profitable business sectors.


Under the new WTO rules, however, strict American intellectual property rights regulations, which extend patent rights for 20 years, have become standard. All 140 WTO member countries must change their laws to conform, although some developing countries have been given until 2006 to make the change. For many, it is difficult to see the economic rationale behind the 20-year monopoly. Not surprisingly, it was chosen because the American pharmaceuticals industry was extremely influential in drawing up the WTO's patent provisions.


In practical terms, this enforced adherence to patents has meant that poor countries like Nigeria end up buying lesser quantities of the branded medicines with their limited resources, meaning that fewer of their people have access to reasonable health care.


Nothing illustrates the absurdity of this state of affairs, the inherent inhumanity and the immorality of the "profit-before-life" policies of Western pharmaceutical companies, than AIDS.


More than 10 years after the first definitive HIV treatment, AZT, was developed, less than 0.5 per cent of infected people in poor countries have access to antiretrovirals -- AIDS drugs -- which could prolong their lives and which has drastically minimized the onslaught of the pandemic in the West. Only 10,000 of the estimated 25 million people in Africa infected with HIV/AIDS take antiretroviral drugs, which can cost $10,000 to $15,000 a year per person in developed countries.


Such low antiretroviral access statistics have meant that in many developing countries, to be diagnosed with HIV is to be handed a virtual death sentence. In addition, the socio-economic effects of the pandemic on a developing community environment have been horrendous.


They range from an almost unbearable burden of orphaned children through degradation of the human resources necessary for national development to increased crime and destitution.


On the other hand, Brazil is seen as a model for other countries of what can be achieved for public health by boosting local production of drugs such as the anti-AIDS drug, AZT, lowering prices through competition and negotiating discounts on patented drugs. Between 1996 and 2001, approximately 358,000 AIDS hospitalizations were prevented, saving approximately $1.1 billion.


Malaria is killing thousands of children in African countries because law-abiding African member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO) can't import the Sh2 generic drug from India.


Of course, nobody pretends that low-cost drugs are the whole solution. The World Health Organization estimates that average health spending in Africa is $50 to $60 per person a year. However, the greater availability of generic versions of vital drugs for infectious diseases -- whether as a result of voluntary licenses or weaker patent protection -- would certainly help to improve public health in poor countries. Currently, in Nigeria, in the absence of viable alternatives, the poor often unwittingly resort to purchasing substandard or counterfeit drugs.


Conveniently, it is often forgotten that Penicillin, the first modern wonder drug, wasn't patented. When Alexander Fleming invented it at St. Mary's hospital in London in 1928, the British government decided that something of such great benefit to the world should not be a monopoly. Unfortunately, we are now in a different era, when ROI (return on investment) is everything. Consequently, unlike the British government in the 1920’s, today’s pharmaceutical industry takes a different view. Protecting its intellectual property rights is a major priority, even if that means preventing poor countries from making cheap copies of the drugs that they urgently need.


As long as the noose around patent-protected drugs is not loosened, Africa faces a humanitarian disaster. Most of the 33 million diagnosed with HIV worldwide live in Africa. Sadly, the majority of those people are likely to die in the next decade without urgent action, according to UNaids, the United Nations agency devoted to fighting the disease.


Wole Akande, a former opinion columnist with Ireland's Irish Examiner newspaper, is a freelance journalist based in Nigeria. Wole maintains Abeokuta Web Pages, a Nigerian community website: http://www.abeokuta.org. He can be reached at: wakande@YellowTimes.org. This article first appeared at Yellow Times.org. Please visit Yellow Times and support their vital work.