TWN Info Service on Health Issues (March 07/03)

23 March 2007

Novartis lobbies European Parliament

Even as its legal challenge against India is being heard, Novartis has lobbied the European Parliament to prevent the latter from supporting India’s patent law which allows access to cheap medicines in developing countries.

Abbot faces Thai public boycott

In Thailand, Thai NGOs are mounting a protest against Abbot since the drug company declared that it would not be marketing new drugs in Thailand as a protest against the Thai government for breaking the patent on its AIDS drug. The two stories below feature the ongoing controversy.

It is reproduced with permission from South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #6216, 22 March 2007.

With best wishes
Evelyne Hong

Health: Novartis lobbies European Parliament on patents
By David Cronin, IPS, Brussels, 20 March 2007

The leading pharmaceuticals firm Novartis is seeking to prevent the EU's political bodies from supporting an Indian law allowing access to cheap medicines in developing countries.

The Swiss firm has contacted all 785 members of the European Parliament over the past few weeks, urging them not to sign a written declaration opposing the Novartis stance on India's 2005 patents law. Novartis is taking legal action against the law, which provides for patents on medicines to be refused on public health grounds.

The firm's lobbying efforts appear to have paid dividends. Although left-wing and Green MEPs have strenuously criticised the company, the written declaration has had far less backing from deputies in the Parliament's largest political grouping, the centre-right European People's Party.

A written declaration becomes the assembly's official position once a majority of MEPs have signed it. But with only 47 names secured since this declaration was opened for signature in February, it appears to be in jeopardy.

The Novartis legal challenge follows the decision by Indian authorities in January not to grant it a patent on its cancer drug Glivec.

Meni Styliadou, head of European public affairs at Novartis, said that the "case does not concern access to medicines", but that it is contesting those aspects of the Indian patents system which "are currently not in compliance with international law."

The humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) regards this assertion as bogus.

"Novartis is spreading confusion in the MEPs' minds," Alexandra Heumber, an access to medicines campaigner with MSF, told IPS. "But the real issue is that Novartis does not consider public health to be a right. It has no sense of corporate responsibility."

The Indian authorities turned down the Novartis application for Glivec on the grounds that it was a new form of a previously existing drug, rather than an innovation.

If the firm succeeds in having that decision overturned, anti-poverty campaigners fear that this will have grave consequences for the supply of generic medicines to the poor. Over half the medicines used for treating AIDS in developing countries are manufactured in India.

The challenge is being heard in the High Court of Chennai, India's fourth largest city, which is scheduled to finish its deliberations on March 26.

India did not require patents for medicines before the 2005 law, which was introduced to fulfill its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The law differs from those applied in Europe and the United States, which can allow firms to gain new patents on modifications of existing treatments.

Yet while Novartis claims that the law violates WTO rules, its supporters say that it is in the spirit of the organisation's 2001 Doha declaration.

Agreed at a ministerial conference in the Qatari capital, this declaration stated that intellectual property rights should be interpreted in a way that supports the right to pubic health and promotes access to medicines for all.

Many campaigners have interpreted this as allowing countries to waive patents on drugs if they are needed to address an emergency, such as the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

Styliadou also said that "our legal case has no impact on pending patent applications for new HIV treatments."

By contrast, MSF believes that the law is especially pertinent to AIDS.

Because AIDS patients can develop resistance to drug combinations that they take, there is frequently a need for them to switch to new medicines or updated versions of existing ones.

This has been illustrated by MSF's main project in South Africa. In Khayelitsha township, near Cape Town, more than 17% of people being treated for AIDS have had to change their combinations in the past five years.

Newer drugs are generally only available from companies holding the patents for them. According to MSF, this means that they can be up to 50 times more expensive than older ones.

Indian manufacturers have already been unwilling to start producing generic versions of newer medicines, lest they would have to stop doing so if patents are granted on them in India.

Competition among generic manufacturers has helped bring the yearly cost of anti- retrivorals used for treating AIDS down from $10,000 per patient in 2000 to $130 in 2007. Yet companies holding patents can charge higher prices for their medicines as they have a monopoly on their production.

The EU's executive arm, the European Commission, has refused to call on Novartis to drop its case.

Peter Mandelson, European commissioner for trade, said that the Commission's policy is not to intervene in court cases.

But anti-poverty campaigners say that this position is unacceptable as the Commission has nominally pledged its support to the Doha declaration on access to medicines.

"By not taking a position, the Commission is in fact taking a position," said Heumber. "Not saying [that] they support the Indian government means [that] they are supporting Novartis."

MEPs critical of Novartis have signaled that they will maintain their pressure on the company.

"If Novartis is successful, a source of affordable life-saving drugs will dry up, condemning millions of the world's poorest to premature, preventable deaths," said Caroline Lucas, a deputy with the British Green Party.

"Novartis simply has no business standing in the way of people's right to access the medicines they need for survival."

French Socialist Kader Arif said: "If Novartis wins the case, it is highly probable that many drugs will be patented in India and access to generic versions of drugs will be limited. This would be at the expense of millions of patients in the world whose lives depend on such drugs, in particular AIDS patients."

Thailand: US pharma giant faces public boycott

By Marwaan Macan-Markar, IPS, Bangkok, 21 March 2007

A broad coalition of Thai non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is threatening to tap the spirit of nationalism, which runs deep and wide here, in a showdown with a Chicago-based pharmaceutical giant. The need for access to cheaper life-saving drugs has sparked this row.

The street outside the Thailand office of Abbott Laboratories in a popular shopping area in downtown Bangkok is poised to become one of the many battlegrounds in this imminent clash. Other sites that the NGOs have in mind are shops that sell Abbott products, advertising agencies and Thai customers.

''Abbott does not care about Thai people. We call on Thai people to boycott all Abbott products,'' Saree Aongsomwang, manager of the Foundation for Consumers, said this week. ''We have to stand up to Abbott.''

Her call was echoed by Rosana Tositrakul, a member of the Thai Holistic Health Foundation, who compared support for Abbott as equal to ''supporting a fox in a chicken coop.''

''Thai consumers must get together and boycott Abbott, because it is an effective tool,'' she said. ''This resistance from small people will continue until Abbott changes its policies. This action will be an awakening of Thai people.''

The show of defiance directed at Abbott has grown since the pharma giant declared last week that it would not be marketing new drugs to Thailand as a protest against a decision by Bangkok's military-appointed government to invoke a clause in the global trading rules.

In January, health minister Mongkol na Songkhla confirmed that Thailand had used the 'compulsory license' option recognised by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to break the patent on 'Kaletra', an anti-retroviral (ARV) drug produced by Abbott.

Abbott's announcement on March 14 that it will not register seven new drugs in Thailand include a new ARV pill conducive to tropical climates in addition to an antibiotic, a painkiller and drugs for kidney disease and blood clots.

The multinational has defended its move by seeking recourse in a familiar argument: that breaking patents the Thai way will undermine the efforts by pharmaceutical companies to invest in research and development for new drugs.

But the lesson that Abbott hopes to teach Thailand for placing the lives of its patients over corporate profits is destined to become a public relations fiasco, in addition to global outrage against the questionable practices of a pharmaceutical giant, asserts Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF - or Doctors Without Borders), the international relief agency in the vanguard of an international campaign for access to cheaper drugs.

''It is the first time that a pharmaceutical company has gone so far. I don't see what they are trying to achieve through these threats,'' Paul Cawthorn, from MSF's Bangkok office, told IPS. ''What they have done is very petty and appalling. It will reflect badly on multinational companies.''

Abbott's decision has ''raised the ante'' in the campaign for cheaper drugs in the developing world to ''a new level,'' he added. ''We are talking about essential, life saving medicines. This issue is not going to go away, because access to drugs has become a critical issue.''

In fact, the position taken by Thai authorities to justify the use of the WTO-approved compulsory license, in the case of public health emergencies, is revealing.

''The Thai ministry of public health views these decisions on the government use of patents as a form of social movement that aims at improving access to essential medicines and the health of the people,'' minister Mongkol wrote in a preface to a book on Thailand's position towards compulsory license: ''The public health interest is thus the main and final goal of this social movement.''

The Thai health ministry believes in ''a moderate and public interest oriented approach to implement the intellectual property right,'' added the 96-page book, which was released this month in Geneva where the World Health Organisation (WHO) is based. ''We are convinced and committed to the view that Public Health interest and the life of the people must come before commercial interest.''

Abbott has also to contend with the lack of support from two other pharmaceutical giants who have been equally affected by Bangkok's invoking the compulsory license option to break their respective patent-protected drugs.

Neither the pharma giant Sanofi-Aventis, which produces Palvix, a drug for heart patients, nor Merck, which produces Efavirenz, a life-prolonging drug for HIV patients, has turned on Thailand the way that Abbott has.

Merck was the first to be hit by the new public health policy of this South-east Asian nation in November last year, followed by Abbott and Sanofi-Aventis in January.

The right of a developing country to issue a compulsory license, to break a patent-protected drug and produce a cheaper generic version locally, was one of two provisions that were approved during the WTO ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar, in 2001. The other was to enable developing countries faced with public health emergencies the right to break patents by importing cheaper copycat versions.

Thai activists who are gearing up to mount the boycott of Abbott products here say that studies justify Bangkok's decision to break the patents on expensive anti-AIDS drugs desperately in need.

According to official reports, the public health budget for ARVs has increased from $10 million in 2001 to over $100 million this year. And even that figure will only buy drugs for the 82,000 patients out of the country's 500,000 infected.

''The ministry of health must stand firm on its decision,'' says Nimitr Tien-udom, head of AIDS Access, an NGO working to secure cheaper drugs for people with HIV. ''If you are using Abbott's products, just stop. The company's tactic is to monopolise patients in the market.''