Monday, June 20, 2011

Secret ploy to starve India of medicines

Just when I hoped never to hear the name Peter Mandelson again, the Prince of Darkness emerged into the Swiss sunlight. A video on the internet shows this architect of New Labour trying to conceal his unease with a grin when confronted by protesters at the annual meeting of the ultra-elitist Bilderberg Group in St Moritz earlier this month.

Mandelson now runs the consultancy firm Global Counsel. As his job involves helping corporations penetrate the markets of developing countries, it is something of a continuation of his stint as Europe’s trade commissioner. His penchant for accepting trips on billionaires’ yachts brought the occasional controversy to his four years in Brussels (2004-08). Yet it was some of his more mundane activities that were truly scandalous, particularly his efforts to increase the bills that the world’s poor pay for healthcare.

In July 2007, Mandelson wrote to the Thai government, urging it to abandon plans for keeping the price of medicines affordable. He was irked by indications that the Bangkok authorities would overrule patents in cases where branded medicines were more than 5% dearer than the price of generic versions of the same products. His letter had menacing undertones – warning Thailand it could face “isolation” from certain types of foreign investment if it pushed ahead with its “new approach to access to medicines” (Mandelson’s words).

I was reminded of Mandelson’s less-than-subtle threat over the past fortnight when I received a new batch of correspondence between pharmaceutical lobbyists and the European Commission. These documents – dating from 2007 to 2010 - indicate that major drug companies are determined to prevent developing countries from saving lives among the disadvantaged, whenever profit is at stake.

Indeed, there is little difference between the substance of Mandelson’s letter to Thailand and an email message relating to India that the European Federation for Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) sent to various Brussels officials in September 2010. That message concerned a discussion paper from India’s department of industrial policy, which raised the possibility that compulsory licenses (CLs) could be issued to ensure that larger quantities of branded medicines are made available in generic form. According to EFPIA’s trade specialist Louis-Nicolas Fortin, the paper “includes considerations that raise key concerns for our industry”. Among them were the possibility of “broadening CL grounds beyond public health emergencies.”

I read the Indian paper meticulously and found that it had a strong relationship with common sense. It began with a history lesson about how compulsory licensing allows a government to authorise the production of a patented item without the consent of the patent-holder. During the world wars, that system was used to share aviation technology and for manufacturing penicillin. A few pages later, it cited estimates that 700,000 people in India are diagnosed with cancer each year and that most of them are unable to pay “for expensive anti-cancer medicines”. Moreover, it said that India has the highest number of HIV cases in South Asia but only 300,000 out of 2.5 million Indians infected with the virus are being treated.

The only humane response to all this pointless suffering is to get medicines to the people who need them. If that means violating patents, then so be it. How dare the suits in EFPIA’s Brussels office imply that the high levels of cancer and AIDS in India may not constitute an emergency.

After I finished reading that Indian paper, I turned to one drafted by EFPIA itself in September last year and marked “confidential”. The latter document outlined a number of “priority issues” for European pharmaceutical firms trading with India. Not one word of concern was expressed about the dismally low levels of medical treatment in the country.

Another email by the diligent Louis-Nicolas Fortin underscored that the “overall, top-most priority for our industry is to ensure commitments to introduce effective and significant regulatory data protection” in India. Regulatory data protection – also known as data exclusivity – is a means of forbidding makers of generic drugs from using information that the “originator” of a medicine hands over to the authorities when registering that product.

In a recent interview with medical journal The Lancet, India’s trade minister Anand Sharma stated there is “no question” of accepting data exclusivity in the free trade agreement he expects to sign with the EU later this year. To allay Indian fears, Karel de Gucht, the Union’s current trade commissioner, claimed in May that “we’re not asking for data exclusivity, we’re just not”. It is difficult to take his assurance seriously as some versions of a proposed trade agreement drawn up by Brussels officials were definitely aimed at restraining India’s generics industry – a leading supplier of low-priced medicines to Asia and Africa.

The batch of correspondence illustrates that EFPIA’s bludgeoning is by no means confined to India. In 2009, it reacted with horror to the idea that a data exclusivity provision which the EU wanted to insert into a trade agreement with Colombia and Peru would allow some flexibilities for public health reasons. According to the lobby group that “would set a precedent of a much weaker standard” of intellectual property than the one it coveted.

Back in 2003, a study carried out for the European Parliament named EFPIA as one of the most effective corporate interest organisations in Brussels. No doubt, it was proud with that recognition. But it’s disgraceful that its success depends on restricting medical treatment to the rich.

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 19-25 June 2011

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