Jul 15, 2009 at 5:05 am Leave a comment

On July 7th, an Indian court rejected a patent claim by drug-maker Novartis for a cancer drug it developed. The Indian court said that the drug was not unique enough to warrant its own patent; however, the importance of this case is not the reasons for its outcome, but its impact on the world’s supply of cheap, generic drugs.

India is one of the major generic drug producers in the world, supplying cheap and generic drugs for malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS to donor countries who use the drugs to combat these diseases in third world countries where impoverished citizens are too poor to afford healthcare. Donor government agencies, such as USAID, and Non-Governmental Organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, depend on generic drugs in order to afford the cost of providing basic health-care to people whose government can not or will not supply even basic services. Yet the ability of pharmaceutical companies to make generic drugs for third world consumption has become increasingly difficult due to patent laws that are driven by profit.

The World Trade Organization relegates trade laws between international borders, including intellectual property rights. Protecting property rights is important and has become even more so in today’s fast-paced and globalized world. The WTO should regulate patents, along with physical product moving across borders. However, if the WTO wants to regulate internationally, the organization needs to take all countries’ needs into consideration, not just Western nations. They also need to look past profit-driven answers.

In 1995 the WTO passed the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which enforces a minimum standard for protecting and enforcing global property rights. One of the most important aspects of TRIPS, at least in terms of global health, is that patents last a minimum of 20 years. When a patent is granted to a company, no other company can duplicate that same product or process for those 20 years. This essentially means that the company has a state-sanctioned monopoly on that product and can effectively set whatever price they want for it.

This is bad news for developing countries’ ability to access medicine. Poor people in third world countries rely on donor governments and organizations for these medicines. On average generic drugs cut the cost in half. The high cost of original drugs is particularly disconcerting now during the current economic crisis. First world governments’ pledges for international development donations have plateaued or decreased, and aid organizations are seeing a decrease in donations. Many aid agencies have stopped taking new patients because of a prediction that they won’t be able to continue treatment in the long-run. Patients with HIV, which requires a “cocktail” treatment involving three different drugs, may not be able to continue into the third phase of treatment.

Though patents are important to protect intellectual property, pharmaceutical companies should not be lumped in with all other types of physical or creative products. Medicine is a necessity, and it is simply immoral to restrict access to it on the basis of profit. If the WTO wants to regulate trade laws universally, then countries within the WTO should also pledge to make access to life-saving medecines universal.

Source – “HIV/AIDS treatment in developing countries: the battle for long-term survival has just begun.” Doctors Without Borders’ Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. July 2009.


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