Obama Administration Trying To Move Away From Allowing Countries To Ignore Patents To Save Lives

from the sickening dept

Well here's another depressing one. For about a decade, there's been something known as the Doha Declaration, under the World Trade Organization (WTO), which effectively said that since public health and "access to medicines for all" was important, countries could have some "flexibility" in dealing with patented medication. In practice, this has meant that in order to deal with health issues, countries can ignore patents when necessary to make sure there is more medicine and that the medicine is reasonably priced. This is good for public health.

Of course, the pharmaceutical companies hate it.

KEI is tracking how the Obama Administration has been quietly backing away from the Doha Declaration and limiting the types of diseases that can be covered under Doha. Even though Doha is pretty clear that it can cover any kind of medicine in the interest of public health, a recent draft text for new agreements clearly (but quietly) tries to make sure that "Non-Communicable Diseases" (NCDs) are not considered to be covered by Doha. In other words, if you're talking about cancer, diabetes or heart disease... countries won't be able to use Doha to provide cheap and necessary drugs to people.

There's apparently a negotiation going on about an agreement on NCDs which, not surprisingly, has been driven by people representing the pharmaceutical industry. In one particularly egregious situation, according to the KEI report, a group representing the pharma industry was "grouped as civil society" at one of the meetings. Yes, for the purposes of one of the meetings, pharma lobbyists were labeled as a consumer interest group.

The end result is that, as it stands right now, the draft text around NCDs does not mention the Doha Declaration any more. This may not seem like a big deal, in that it still mentions "flexibilities," but trying to carve out what is and what is not covered by Doha clearly appears to be a means of ratcheting back the ability of countries to do the right thing in protecting public health:
By seeking to eliminate any references to the Doha Declaration, the U.S. appears to be asserting that the "access to medicine for all" provisions in the Doha Declaration do not apply to drugs for cancer and other non-communicable diseases.


Why is this controversy important? The US has conceded that compulsory licenses can be used for NCDs, an issue of no controversy legally, but politically sensitive. However, by removing the reference to the Doha Declaration, and maintaining the political position that the Doha Declaration does not apply to NCDs, the White House seeks to eliminate the "access to medicine for all" standard, and to raise doubts about the application of other elements of the Doha Declaration, including paragraphs 5, 6 and 7 to NCDs, if not legally, at least politically.
It's tough not to be cynical about this kind of stuff. But I'm having trouble seeing this as anything other than doing a favor for the pharma industry.

There was some hope that the administration might clarify its position and answer some questions related to this in a USTR paper that was recently released, but the actual release turned out to be nearly totally devoid of substance, angering plenty of consumer groups concerned about access to medicine. Even worse, the paper appears to suggest that greater patent protection may make more sense. The summary from Tido von Schoen-Angerer makes all this clear:
The leaked papers reveal a number of U.S. objectives: to make it impossible to challenge a patent before it is granted; to lower the bar required to get a patent (so that even drugs that are merely new forms of existing medicines, and don't show a therapeutic improvement, can be protected by monopolies); and to push for new forms of intellectual property enforcement that give customs officials excessive powers to impound generic medicines suspected of breaching IP.

And there's more.

The U.S. will also reportedly introduce measures to make it harder and more expensive for generic drugs to get regulatory approval, and to lengthen patent monopolies for pharmaceutical firms so that they keep generics out and prop up drug prices for longer. All of these measures are known to hit the availability of affordable medicines in developing countries hard.
The really amazing thing is how incredibly short-sighted this is. Even if you wanted to argue that it's somehow "good for the economy" to artificially prop up pharma companies with longer and stronger patents, if it comes at the expense of public health, that's not going to help the economy at all. A healthy population is a consuming population. Letting people die around the world is not good for the economy.

Filed Under: access to medicines, healthcare, patents

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  1. icon
    bdhoro (profile), 21 Sep 2011 @ 3:59pm


    This makes me wonder whether all the problems with the pharma industry started with government regulation.... If it was my business, and the government basically killed my revenue stream in the name of public health I would be quite annoyed.

    Whether you like it or not pharma companies and doctors etc are in business to make money. They aren't charities, but the nature of their business makes people think they should be charities - a doctor should be in it to make people healthy, not just to make money right? Wrong.

    A doctor's number one concern should be to make money. The means by which he does that should be by making people more healthy.
    And we need it to be that way, because nothing else is sustainable... Unfortunately, charities must be funded - usually by businesses.

    I'd place a pretty big bet that the pharma companies have produced more to promote public health than charities and the government combined.

    Its tough to walk the fine line that the pharma companies are on and we have to remember that when making policies. Its very easy to say hey its good for public health to give drugs away for free. Its hard to be the one who is "against public health" by actually having to make a living by keeping people living! How horrible those companies are - doing everything they can to stay in the business of making people healthier by demanding they be paid!

    If you're really concerned about public health you'd be concerned with making sure the pharma companies can stay in business. Just because they're supposed to be keeping us healthy doesn't mean the economics work any differently.

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