Info Service on Health Issues (March 07/03)
Novartis lobbies European Parliament
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.
faces Thai public boycott
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.
is reproduced with permission from South-North Development Monitor (SUNS)
#6216, 22 March 2007.
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
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
The law differs from those applied in Europe and the United States,
which can allow firms to gain new patents on modifications of existing
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
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
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
"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
''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
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
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,
''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.''
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