[Ip-health] Guardian: MSF launches attack on European Commission for blocking cheap drugs

Katy.ATHERSUCH at geneva.msf.org Katy.ATHERSUCH at geneva.msf.org
Fri Oct 8 07:01:59 PDT 2010

Sarah Boseley

MSF launches attack on European Commission for blocking cheap drugs

The EC is seeking a trade agreement with India which will restrict its
generic companies from making cheap copycat drugs for poor countries, says
MSF, which launches a campaign to oppose this and other allegedly
restrictive EC practices today
In 2001, with the signing of the Doha declaration, it was widely thought
that the battle for cheap drugs for developing countries had been won. The
declaration effectively created a benign loophole in the medicine patent
rules. Indian and other generics companies could be licensed to make cheap
copies of patented HIV and other drugs to sell to poor countries.

But it's not all over, by any means, according to campaigners for access to
medicines. The foremost NGO among them, Médecins Sans Frontières, is today
accusing the European Commission of aggressively pushing policies -
including a trade agreement with India - that will dry up the flow of cheap
drugs to those who badly need them in poor countries.

A three-month campaign, called "Europe! HANDS OFF our medicine", launched
today, invites people to let the EC know they object through a web platform
which allows them to send an email to the Trade Commissioner, Karel De
Gucht. "If you continue to pursue your actions, people who rely on these
medicines to stay alive will be left without a lifeline and many are likely
to die," it says.

Tough language, but MSF believes the stakes are high and argues that the EC
has been doing the bidding of the multinational drug companies (who want to
protect their drug monopolies) for some time and in a number of ways. This
is Dr Unni Karunakara, president of MSF's international council:

      We depend on access to affordable medicines like those produced in
      India to treat all kinds of diseases. We buy 80% of our Aids
      medicines from India - medicines that keep 160,000 people alive
      today. On their behalf, we cannot remain silent as Europe works to
      close the door on every aspect of drug supply - the production of a
      generic medicine, its registration and its transportation to patients
      in other parts of the world. So today we are launching a campaign
      demanding 'Europe! HANDS OFF our medicine.'

There are several issues. The free trade agreement is seeking tougher
patent rules than the existing World Trade Organisation agreement requires,
says MSF. The EC wants to introduce "data exclusivity", which would stop a
generic company registering a copy of a drug that does NOT have a patent
for a period of time - usually five to eight years - unless it runs its own
expensive and lengthy clinical trials. At best, it would delay the arrival
of generic versions.

MSF offers the example of nevirapine syrup for children with HIV. It was
not given a patent by the Indian patent office, which meant generics
companies could go ahead and copy it. If data exclusivity had been in
force, children in Africa might have had to wait for some years.

But the campaigners also take issue with the EC over a number of seizures
of generic drugs that have taken place in European ports since 2008. Dutch
customs officers detained a shipment of losartan potassium, for instance,
which is an ingredient in a blood pressure drug and was on its way from
India to Brazil. It is not patented in either country, but it is in the
Netherlands. The shipment was sent back to India. The Brazilian government
said 300,000 Brazilian patients were waiting for their medicine. Aids drugs
intended for Nigeria, bought by the European-funded access to medicines
organisation UNITAID, were also seized in the Netherlands.

Michelle Childs, policy advisor for MSF's access campaign, says the EC is
doing the pharmaceutical's industry bidding. "The IFPMA [the trade body]
has said they want data exclusivity. They have repeatedly asked for this.
It's been a long-standing aim of the pharmaceutical companies to introduce
this because it gives them the extra period of time."

The Office of the EU Trade Commissioner denied it was impeding access to
medicines for the poor. This was what its spokesman told the BBC:

      The EU has never and will never stand in the way of the production of
      legitimate generic medicines. The EU is in favour of providing access
      to medicines to people in need and these negotiations with India do
      not stand in the way of this.

      Patents are important, they need to be protected. The European
      pharmaceutical companies say that the patents need to be protected
      otherwise the production of new drugs will be seriously in peril.

MSF points out that the issue is not about patents.

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