[Ip-health] Have Pharmaceutical Companies Changed?

Claire Cassedy claire.cassedy at keionline.org
Thu May 22 06:30:48 PDT 2014

Have Pharmaceutical Companies Changed?



It is 1996 and the scene is starting with the plight of HIV hitting the
news. By 2000, it was clear for all to see that the medicines available to
treat this deadly disease are in the North while the disease is most
prevalent in the poorer countries in the South. It was estimated that one
in five South Africans was infected.

Yet 39 multinational pharmaceutical companies decided to take Nelson
Mandela’s Government to court over an Intellectual Property Bill that tried
to prevent patents from hindering access to medicines. Thanks to a global
public campaign and patients’ advocacy, the companies were forced to
withdraw their case in 2001.

Talk to “big pharma” and they will tell you that the South Africa court
case was a landmark in their history. Some even say that such a thing would
not happen again. One cannot help a cynical smile when remembering that in
2006 Novartis took the Indian government to court over the claim that
India’s intellectual property law is not TRIPS  compliant. Needless to say
Novartis lost its case. At least this time other companies watched from a
distance without giving public support for Novartis.


It is 2014 and the scene is of a world waking up to the growing plight of
non-communicable diseases. The latest WHO report estimates that cancer
cases are expected to soar by 70% over the next 20 years . Although the big
talk is still about prevention (which of course is critical), very few are
talking about treatment. In the current debates on post MDGs cancer is
hardly mentioned and in the discussions on Universal Health Coverage one
rarely hears about how to make detection and treatment (surgery,
radiotherapy and medicines) available and affordable.

Roche markets a drug for cancer (Avastin) which was discovered to also cure
a type of blindness affecting older people. So Roche patented another form
of the drug (Lucentis) as specific treatment for the eye condition. The
catch is that one injection of Avastin costs $50 while a Lucentis injection
costs $2,000. Another example that recently hit the headlines is that of a
new medicine to treat Hepatitis C (made by Gilead) but alas it costs $1,000
per day.

Needless to say that access to affordable medicines for HIV and other
infections remains an “unfinished” agenda – the debate on medicine price is
just as important today as it was in late nineties and early 2000s.

And now back to South Africa again. In February this year, a leaked
document shows that the Innovative Pharmaceutical Industry Association of
South Africa (IPASA) and its sister organisation in the US (PhRMA), hired a
PR company to conduct a covert campaign against the South African
government. The campaign intended to delay and undermine the Government’s
new Intellectual Property Bill which seeks to use internationally agreed
legal instruments such as the TRIPS flexibilities included in the Indian
law, to enhance access to more affordable generic medicines in South Africa.

But the pharmaceutical industry does not want the South African government
to take such actions to protect public health. IPASA made a submission to
the DTI on the Draft National Policy on Intellectual Property in support of
the current status quo.

The South African Department of Health condemned the recently leaked
pharmaceutical industry strategy. The Minister of Health described the
proposal as a “genocidal conspiracy of satanic magnitude”, accusing
pharmaceutical companies of “conspiring against the state, the people of
South Africa and the populations of developing countries” – and of planning
what amounts to “mass murder”.


I cannot answer this question any better than the honest statement given by
Marijn Dekkers, CEO of Bayer who said in reference to Bayer’s medicine
Nexavar for the treatment of liver and kidney cancer:

“ .. we did not develop this product for the Indian market, let’s be
honest. We developed this product for Western patients who can afford this
product, quite honestly. It is an expensive product, being an oncology

These simple words tell us the whole story of multinational pharmaceutical
companies’ approach to access to medicines: that they are about maximizing
profits and not about contributing to advancing public health. All their
talk of “putting patients at the front of our business” is just talk for
public consumption to improve their PR image. The business model of
multinational pharmaceutical companies – founded on maximizing profit –
dictates the Research & Development agenda and the pricing and marketing
pathways. Companies still refer to compulsory license, a legal instrument
under TRIPS, as “essentially theft.”

We must always remember that it was this industry –chiefly Pfizer- which
lobbied and succeeded in designing a global Intellectual Property system
(TRIPS) and fought hard against the flexibilities and instrument included
there for countries to use to protect their citizens.   It is pharma that
continues to lobby for stricter Intellectual Property rules in free trade
agreements that further tie the hands of governments so that companies’
monopoly is extended.

So what has changed apart from adopting new tactics? Well at least some
companies remembered – and perhaps did not want to repeat – the old South
Africa saga and started to withdraw from the IPASA campaign plan. The
Danish company, Novo Nordisk dissociated itself from IPASA and more
recently Roche followed suit.

The big question remains though: when will multinational pharmaceutical
companies realise the failure of their Intellectual Property-dependent
business model and seek alternatives?

Dr Mohga Kamal-Yanni is a Senior Health Policy Advisor at Oxfam GB

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