Geneva, 24 October 2005 — The World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Council (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) is scheduled to discuss amendments to the TRIPS Agreement this week in Geneva. These amendments are supposed to increase access to affordable essential medicines. But Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) fears they are utterly inadequate to solve the second wave of the drug price crisis.
WTO rules on patents stand in the way of access to affordable essential medicines. To remedy this, the WTO adopted the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health in 2001. MSF is urging Pascal Lamy, Director-General of the WTO, to investigate if the measures in place now actually work to increase access to essential drugs, in a world where new medicines become patentable everywhere.
MSF now provides over 45,000 HIV/ AIDS patients with anti-retrovirals, and a desperate need for newer drugs is on the horizon. “We were able to increase the number of people we treat because generic competition lowered the prices of first line medicines,” said Dr Karim Laouabdia, Director of MSF Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. ‘That was before full TRIPS implementation. Where will affordable second-line drugs come from now?” These newer drugs cost four to ten times more than first-line treatments, even at discounted prices. In the best case, MSF pays over $1,000 to treat a Cambodian patient for a year, and in the worst, it costs over $6,000 to treat a Guatemalan. Almost all of the newer drugs used in second line treatment of AIDS are patented or likely to be patented in the countries that have the capacity for generic production, like India, Brazil, Thailand and China.
“This week’s proposals at the TRIPS Council do not offer real solutions for the problems we are facing. They will make the August 30* temporary solution permanent. This solution has been in place since 2003, but there is not a shred of evidence yet that it actually works. So far, the little we know is that this solution has placed burdens on drug procurement and could discourage rather than encourage generic production.” said Ellen ‘t Hoen, Policy Advocacy Director at MSF’s Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines.
The impact of patents is not limited to HIV/ AIDS medicines. The current global scramble for a limited supply of patented flu medicines illustrates the dangers of patent monopolies. The WTO’s Doha Declaration came with promises to put public health before profit. As far as the needs of people in developing countries are concerned, these promises have not been fulfilled. On top of that, the US is trying to secure bilateral trade agreements with various countries that will lead to even higher levels of intellectual property protection than the WTO requires. This means that countries are rapidly losing their ability to take advantage of TRIPS flexibilities, in order to overcome the barriers posed by patents.
The August 30 solution was adopted in 2003 to allow generic copies made under compulsory licences to be exported to countries that lack production capacity, provided certain conditions and procedures are followed.