Monday, May 11, 2009

Medicine patents and politics

Recently, a health industry alliance in the US, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) repeated its call for the Philippine government to be careful in implementing patent confiscation provisions of the “Cheaper medicines law” (RA 9502). Here’s the news report today.
Monday, May 11, 2009

US lobby group seeks more talks on patent row

AMERICAN pharmaceutical companies are calling for more dialogues with the Philippine government to settle differences regarding drug patent protection.
The talks are needed to forge policies that will make medicine more accessible but also ensure patents are respected, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) said.

The lobby group’s call came as the US government said it would be monitoring Manila’s copyright policies this year, including the recently passed cheaper medicines law which relaxes patent rules to allow the importation and local production of less expensive drug versions.

The US Trade Representative’s office, in its annual Special 301 report issued earlier this year, criticized the law, saying it "significantly weakens patent protection for pharmaceutical products".

The report kept the Philippines under the copyright piracy watch list and tagged the country as among those whose intellectual property protection policies would be monitored....

From what I observe here, there seems to be no huge public pressure to utilize the IPR abrogation provisions of the law and its implementing rules and regulations (IRR). There is no “national health emergency” that will warrant the utilization of such provisions. AIDS, malaria, dengue, cancer, are not on a “national emergency” level. The closest health “emergency” that could be invoked in the country would be the influenza A(H1N1) virus, previously called “swine flu”. But the incidence in the country as of today is almost zero. Besides, vaccine that can combat such virus has not been invented yet, according to the WHO. The nearest anti-viral drugs that can fight the disease are said to be Tamiflu (by Roche) and Relenza (by GSK), but I don’t read any government in the world rushing for the issuance of compulsory licensing (CL) of such patented drugs yet.

The sectors that are calling for the issuance of CL are some international health NGOs. It is very unlikely that such move will be adopted since the countries that have relatively high incidence of patients suffering from the said new disease are rich countries – US, Canada, a few European countries – and these countries have strong rule of law political culture. IPR confiscation for important and safe medicines is not in their laws.

In the absence of a real health emergency in the country, perhaps PhRMA should be more worried of a “political emergency”. Some politicians and Presidential aspirants in the May 2010 elections, just one year from now, might become desperate for political and public attention in order to increase their ranking in the “Presidentiable” surveys. And such politicians can exaggerate a simple disease into a “national emergency” situation to allow the Philippine government, through the Department of Health (DOH), to declare drug price control and/or issue CL.

Another possibility can be political extortion. Some of those politicians, especially in the administration party and coalition, may demand huge amount of campaign money from the big multinational pharmaceutical companies in the country and threaten, “We will declare drug price control (or issue CL) of your most popular medicines, unless you pay us up…” Presidential and Senatorial elections are very expensive in this country and some politicians are capable of selling their souls to the devil – from monopolists to gambling lords to drug pushers.

It is important that various stakeholders, consumer groups in particular, should be vigilant of the threats that can spank them anytime. In the case of medicines, the threats are the entry of cheap but counterfeit or sub-standard medicines, and the non-availability of important medicines and vaccines to future or emerging diseases. After H5N1 (avian flu), H1N1 (swine flu), what could be next – H9N1, H101N1, H1N500, etc.? And the preliminary R&D for medications to reduce the damage, if not totally kill those potential diseases, may not be around the corner, if the pharmaceutical companies that are capable of inventing such medications are gripped by fear of drug price control, CL and related intervention and IPR confiscation by the State.

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