As Techdirt readers well know, Big Pharma really hates compulsory licensing of its patented drugs, where a country steps in and allows an expensive drug to be made more cheaply in order to provide wider access for its people. Such massive pressure is applied to nations contemplating this move, that even global giants like India quail. A new story is unfolding that reveals just how far companies are prepared to go in order to prevent it from happening. It concerns Colombia's possible use of a compulsory license for the drug imatinib, sold under the name Glivec, and used to treat leukemia. Despite the fact that the company holding patents on the drug, Novartis, is Swiss, the US has started to lean heavily on Colombia in order to persuade it not to go ahead with the move.
KEI has obtained a copy of a letter from Andrés Floréz at the Embassy of Colombia in Washington, DC, to the Minister of Health in Colombia, reporting on a meeting between embassy officials and Everett Eissenstat. He's the Chief International Trade Counsel for the US Senate Committee on Finance, under Senator Orrin Hatch. Apparently, Eissenstat conveyed quite forcefully his views on the negative consequences for Colombia if it decided to issue a compulsory license on the cancer drug Glivec:
Eissenstat mentioned that although Novartis is not an American company, the US pharmaceutical industry was very worried about the possibility that the case would become a precedent that could be applied to any patent in any industry which, according to him, could lead to the reputation of our country's respect for intellectual property rights being viewed as impaired and Colombia becoming one among those countries that would have special treatment...
Nice little country you have there -- be a shame if something happened to it. Stat News mentioned a couple of forms that "special treatment" might take:
Einssenstat also mentioned that, if the Ministry of Health does not correct this situation, the US pharmaceutical industry and related interest groups could become very vocal and interfere with other interests that Colombia could have in the US.
A free-trade treaty between the two countries went into effect four years ago, which obligates Colombia to comply with various international trade laws. Florez also cautioned that issuing a compulsory license for the Novartis drug may "weaken support" for bringing Colombia into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact between 12 countries in the Asia and Pacific regions that must still be approved by Congress.
But the most extraordinary threat is the following, reported here by KEI:
Senator Hatch was so opposed to the idea of a compulsory license on the patent for a $40+ Billion cancer drug made by a Swiss company that he was willing to find an extremely sensitive area for the Colombian people and use it as leverage. The [Paz Colombia] peace process in question is the hopeful conclusion to decades of fighting in the country with guerrilla rebels that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The US is willing to jeopardize the entire "Paz Colombia" peace plan, all because Big Pharma is outraged a developing country might dare to use its international right to issue a compulsory license. As KEI Director James Love commented:
The use of these back channel methods of conveying threats and pressure is common, and the leak of these two letters provides insight into why governments that have the right to issue compulsory licenses rarely do. The fact that after meeting with Eissenstat, the Colombian Embassy connects the patent dispute to the funding of the Colombian peace process illustrates how the United States can link health and national security together in ways that a harmful to both.
It can surely only be a matter of time before Colombia obediently toes the line, and recognizes that Big Pharma's patents and profits are much more important than the health and lives of its people.
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