Geneva 2000: The battle of patents vs. affordable medicines
key issue at the 26 June-1 July Special Session of the UN General Assembly
(UNGASS) on Social Development was the right of people to essential medicines
at affordable prices, and how this right is being undermined by patents
and the intellectual property rights regime established by the WTO’s TRIPS
Agreement. Cecilia Oh reports on the debate on this issue at UNGASS and
at an NGO event organised in the week of the Special Session.
the end of the 24th Session of the United Nations General Assembly
Special Session (UNGASS) in Geneva, governments agreed, after tough negotiations,
that they would be allowed to freely exercise options already available
to them under international trade agreements to protect and advance access
to life-saving and essential medicines.
could be forgiven for thinking that this was hardly headline-making material.
But the negotiations, the trade-offs and the behind-the-scene manoeuvrings
that had gone into getting such an agreement do make for interesting reading.
at UNGASS agreed on a series of actions and initiatives that will take
them forward in implementing their commitments made at the World Summit
for Social Development in Copenhagen, 1995. One of the more contentious
issues discussed at the meeting in Geneva (also called Copenhagen+5) was
that of access to essential medicines, with specific reference to the
was achieved in Geneva?
terms of real progress in addressing the need of developing countries
and poor people’s access to life-saving drugs, not much. In terms of bringing
to light the efforts of some of the developed countries in pushing the
agenda of pharmaceutical corporations, quite a bit.
particular, South Africa had proposed that governments should recognise
that ‘intellectual property rights under the WTO-TRIPS Agreement should
not take precedence over the fundamental human right to the highest attainable
standard of health care’, nor should they take precedence over ‘the ethical
responsibility to provide life-saving medications at affordable cost to
developing countries and people living in poverty’.
US and the EU had objected to this proposal. The EU countered the South
African proposal with an alternative text, which acknowledged the importance
of intellectual property rights, whilst recognising the limited exceptions
to normal patent rights that may be used in particular cases, such as
that of a national emergency.
Again, the developed countries Ð the US, the EU, Canada, Japan and Australia - objected to this proposal. Their opposition was based on the ground that the exclusion of patentability would reduce incentives for pharmaceutical companies to carry out research and development. The EU thus proposed an alternative text reminding governments of the importance of intellectual property rights for providing incentives for research and development. The EU text, however, did point out the inherent flexibility of the TRIPS Agreement, which could be used to improve access to drugs for developing countries.
Freedom to address high cost
does this trading of paragraphs between the governments mean? What the
developing countries were asking for was the freedom to address the problem
of the high cost of life-saving medicines. This could be done through
the use of existing provisions in the TRIPS Agreement.
G-77 position was similar to the stand taken by several NGOs involved
in the health, development and human rights fields. One of the more interesting
NGO-organised events during the week in Geneva was a workshop on ‘Shameful
Profits: AIDS, Drugs and TRIPSÕ, organised by the Norwegian Forum for
Environment and Development.
Health NGO leaders, including Zafarullah Chowdury of Bangladesh and Ellen ‘t Hoen of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), expressed outrage at how pharmaceutical companies were making huge profits through patents on their products. Patents are used by these companies to secure monopolies, thus enabling them to charge high prices at the expense of the poor.
‘A question of life or death’
cannot be treated as mere commodities, access to medicines is a question
of life or death,’ asserted Ellen ‘t Hoen. During her presentation, she
cited several examples of how patenting of drugs has resulted in consumers
having to pay exorbitant prices for branded essential medicines, many
times more than the cost of generic alternatives.
also stressed that the proper role of intellectual property protection
was to balance the private rights of innovators against the broader interest
of the public. In a policy paper for MSF, she advocated that the future
review of the TRIPS Agreement should include an exception for essential
health care products from patenting. ‘Protecting public health should
have primacy over commercial interests,’ she added.
the developing countries managed to fight for a compromise text, in which
the rights of people to health and the rights of national governments
to exercise their options freely within international agreements were
affirmed. It may be argued that the G-77 only managed to include what
was already within the rights of its member countries. Nevertheless, the
explicit stating of these rights and in such manner, was seen by many
of the delegations as a moral victory.
final sentence reaffirms that ‘countries may freely exercise, consistent
with national laws and international agreements acceded to, in an unrestricted
manner, the options available to them under international agreements to
protect and advance access to life-saving and essential medicines’.
’It is no exaggeration to say that hundreds of millions of lives are at stake, given the AIDS epidemic and the resurgence of diseases. It is obscene that corporations can be given patents to make monopoly profits at the expense of these lives. Something has to give. And that something should be the patent regime, and not those hundreds of millions of lives.’