Expanding Drug Patents Menace Universal Access

Jul 19, 2010· 2 MIN READ


Universal access to antiretroviral drugs (ARV) is what everybody is talking about.

Years of work have gone into getting treatment for all who need it. As Bill Clinton told delegates this morning, the very theme of the conference, ‘Rights here, right now,’ is a reminder that “that health care should be a right for everyone.”

But behind the scenes, moves to undermine generic drugs in the developing world could erode much of the progress.

Photo: Yasmine Ryan

While many people living with HIV/AIDS are still waiting for treatment, considerable headway was made in 2009 alone. There are now 5.2 million people receiving medication, out of an estimated 15 million in need, the World Health Organization announced today.

Low-cost generic drugs are have played a crucial role in helping people in the developing world get access to ARV. The Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative, for one, deals mostly with generic drug producers in India and South Africa rather than the major patent-holding pharmaceutical companies.

Negotiations with major pharmaceutical companies can be tough, and the mere existence of generics in the equation has helped developing countries push for lower prices.

Photo: Yasmine Ryan

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Anand Grover, condemned the EU, along with Japan and the U.S., for seeking to stamp out the low-cost generic drugs which have helped make treatment a reality for people living with HIV/AIDS in low- and middle-income countries.

“They want generic competition to stop,” Grover told TakePart in an interview. “They didn’t succeed through TRIPS so now they are using free trade agreements.”


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Sanya Reid Smith of the Third World Network blamed the European Commission for pushing to change the international ground rules in favor of “more patents, longer monopolies and to seize generics.”

Recent enforcement measures have led to the interruption of generic medicines from India as they transit through Europe on their way to countries in Africa and Latin America. And free trade agreements between the EU and over 90 developing countries, that risk wiping generics off the map, are currently in the works, according to Smith.

An agreement between the EU and India, the country where most of the generic ARV producers are based, could turn off the supply of generics completely. Back in 2001, it was the Indian generic companies that broke through the price barrier, cutting the cost of generic ARV medicines from $15,000 per patient per year to $80 per patient per year.

AIDS activists around the world are also concerned about the potential effect of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), described in the Berkeley Declaration as “a deliberate and non-transparent attempt to bypass multilateral institutions, while ultimately aiming to impose its standards on developing countries.”

Photo: Yasmine Ryan

The battle over drug patents are already beginning to menace treatment access in countries like Kenya, where the government has passed an anti-counterfeiting law which could impact legitimate generic drugs. Around 90 percent of antiretroviral drugs available to the estimated 4.1 million Kenyans living with HIV are generics.

The counterfeit bill “deliberately tries to confuse generics with counterfeits,” said Nelson Otwoma, coordinator of the National Empowerment Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS. Health rights activists are challenging the law in the national courts, arguing that it is the work of international pharmaceutical companies.

Similar legislation is under consideration for much of the East African region.

Yasmine Ryan is attending the Journalist to Journalist Global Media Training Program on HIV/AIDS, run by the National Press Foundation in Vienna ahead of the 2010 International AIDS Conference. She will be blogging daily from Vienna until July 23.

Want to learn more about reporting on HIV/AIDS? Click here to see the training resources from the program, including the speakers’ presentations.

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