Health Officials Challenge Drug Firms for Control of Patent System

Article excerpt

The dominance of the global pharmaceutical firms in providing medicine to the world's poor faces its strongest challenge yet at a meeting of World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva this week

The existing system of drug patenting and pricing is fundamentally flawed and does not meet health needs, accordingto report released to health experts last month.

Delegates at this year's World Health Assembly, which opened yesterday, will vote on proposals that would dramatically increase pressure on the com-panies, governments and the WHO to reform the system for producing and distributing drugs in the developing world.

However, campaigners fear the report is being undermined after it was not given prime position in the assembly's agenda.

The way in which multinational drug companies protect their patents in order to reap profits was highlighted by the pricing of Aids drugs a decade ago at $10,000 (pounds 5,300) to $15,000 a year, beyond the means of countries such as South Africa where the need was greatest.

An international outcry led to a court challenge which resulted in the price of Aids drugs being slashed to $150 a year.

The report, by the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, Innovation and Public Health, saidthe existing system of research and development "has not yet produced the results hoped for, or even expected for, the people of developing countries".

Its says drugs are priced too high and there is no incentive to research treatments for the developing world, where the need is great but profits are low. Large sums are committed to finding cures for conditions such as baldness, which is not fatal, rather than for tuberculosis, which is.

The first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer was approved by the US Food and Drug administration last week. Its manufacturer, Merck, priced it at $500 for a course of three shots. That puts it beyond the reach of developing countries, where 80 per cent of cases occur.

Ellen't Hoen, the director of Medecins sans Frontiers' Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, said tighter regulations imposed by the World Trade Organisation meant countries with an industry in generic drugs were less able to escape patent protection laws than in the past. …