[Ip-health] Portuguese navigators, spice routes, and South-South trade routes for medicines Portuguese navigators, spice routes, and South-South trade routes for medicines

Joao Carapinha joao at carapinha.com
Thu Feb 16 12:36:28 PST 2012


*Portuguese navigators, spice routes, and South-South trade routes for


João L. Carapinha, Brook K. Baker

The spice trade of antiquity and contemporary medicine trade appear to
share much in common.

For centuries, Greeks and Romans traded spice with Asia using trade routes
over land and sea to India and China. They were the Indian-Roman routes and
Incense routes with paths crossing the Red Sea and Asia Minor – the same
routes that Marco Polo used and later detailed in his book *The Travels of
Marco Polo*. When the Ottomans defeated the Byzantine Empire in 1453, all
spice trade between Asia and Europe ceased because Europeans refused to pay
exorbitant taxes on goods traveling west through the Ottoman Empire.
Europeans were left with no option but to explore alternative trade routes
to the east. In 1497, Vasco da Gama, the great Portuguese explorer and
navigator, pioneered a Portuguese trade route that connected Lisbon to
India around the tip of South Africa, and thus started the Age of
Discovery. Much of his work was built on the efforts of Bartholomeu Dias,
another Portuguese navigator, who nine years prior rounded the Cape of Good
Hope, currently Cape Town.

In 2008 and 2009, customs officials in the Netherlands, Germany, and France
seized nearly 20 shipments of unpatented generic medicines lawfully
produced in India that were being transshipped through Europe on their way
to Africa, Latin America, and other destinations where they could be
lawfully imported and consumed without violating any domestic patent
rights.  What was the problem according to complaining Big Pharma companies
and border officials – transshipment violated fictional patent rules that
provided that the medicines should be treated as if they had been
manufactured in Europe.  In one instance there was confusion about an
alleged trademark infringement for a medicine that merely was labeled with
the international non-proprietary name.  Indian, Brazil and
access-to-medicines activists complained bitterly and Brazil and India
brought separate complaints at the World Trade Organization challenging the
seizures and the law (EU Border Measures Regulation 1383/2003) upon which
they were based.  The European Court of Justice has since clarified that
goods shouldn’t be seized unless they are intended for the European market
and the EU is discussing a proposed amendment to its border regulations to
the same effect.  However, the current debate overlooks a much bigger
question that history can help answer. India, why do you continue to rely
on European trade routes for medicine exportation to low- and middle-income
(LMI) countries?

It seems odd from a geographical perspective that medicines bound for
Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, should transit through Europe. If
alternative, efficient trade routes were established and expanded, will it
negate the need for much of the debate on EU odious border regulation?
Alleged patent and trademark infringements may become superfluous when
medicines are not routed through Europe. Like Europe after 1453 that
refused to pay high taxes on goods resulting in Portuguese-led alternative
trade routes, perhaps India should do the same. Follow the preliminary lead
of some India producers who have already changed their routes, cut all
medicine trade through Europe and look to new trade routes that connect
generic medicine producers in India directly to the poor in Sub-Saharan
Africa. There are many risks and the costs of doing so are probably high,
but so was the Age of Discovery – a treacherous and time-consuming path to
India around Africa compared to those through the Ottoman Empire. It
brought Europe out of the Middle Ages and it may open a new age for India’s
development and South-South trade more broadly. Medicine prices may
increase in the short-term but it is a price worth paying to secure
favorable trade routes in the long-term. Better direct trade-route
partnerships between India and LMI countries are needed. Infrastructure
improvement at ports (air and sea), tax exemption on all medicine trade
between partner countries, and an independent agency to certify medicine
authenticity and to expedite product registration may be among the tools
used to optimize direct and improved trade in medicines.

Ancient spice trade and current medicine trade share much in common.
History has taught us that if trade routes become unfavorable because of
geopolitical changes, then it may be time to look to alternatives. It has
also taught us that the risks are high but the benefits overshadow these
when assessed retrospectively. India, why do you continue to rely on
European trade routes for medicine exportation to low and middle-income
(LMI) countries? Do what the Europeans did after 1453; you will not regret
it in the long-term.

João L. Carapinha
Pharmaceutical Policy Analyst
Tel: +1 857 540 0702
Skype: joao.carapinha

More information about the Ip-health mailing list