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New victory in campaign for low-cost medications

by Gustavo Capdevila

Geneva, 19 Jul 2001 (IPS) - The price of treatment for drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis will be slashed very drastically, thanks to efforts by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF - Doctors without Borders) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The Paris-based humanitarian organisation MSF, winner of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, has convinced the pharmaceutical industry to cut the price of tuberculosis drugs, which had cost a prohibitive $19,000 per patient for a full round of treatment.

Tuberculosis causes approximately three million deaths annually and has become a global epidemic that is increasingly dangerous, reported MSF as it announced the agreement reached with the pharmaceutical suppliers.

The WHO, meanwhile, highlighted the outbreaks of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in public institutions, such as hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, in the US, Europe and Latin America.

These incidents, says the United Nations agency, “have caused many deaths and have raised concerns about epidemic transmission of MDR-TB.”

With the prices of these medications drastically reduced, some countries could save as much as 94% of their TB medication budget, according to WHO calculations.

One such example is Nicaragua, which currently spends 14.9% of its TB budget on medications. With the new discounts, its drug expenditures will be just 2.7% of the budget, says MSF.

“International approaches to reducing drug prices show that the international TB partnership can make a significant difference to people suffering from multi-drug resistant TB,” stated WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland.

The price of one of the essential drugs in treating MDR-TB, capreomycin, would plummet from $3.38 to $0.14, according to MSF. This medication is currently produced by only one company.

[According to the MSF, the cost of another drug called ofloxacin went down by 87.25% from $2.60 to $0.33, due to competition through tendering.]

The project to lower drug prices, carried out with cooperation from the Harvard University Medical School, of the US, “proves that with an organised system of procurement, prices can be reduced dramatically, and people with this form of TB are no longer condemned to death.”

The humanitarian organisation is currently involved in an international campaign to improve access to essential drugs at lower prices.

MSF played a key role in opposing a lawsuit - which was ultimately withdrawn - brought by 39 transnational pharmaceutical companies against the South African government for its legislation on HIV/AIDS drugs.

The group also publicly supported Brazil in a trade dispute initiated by the US targeting Brazilian legislation that by-passed patent rights to ensure distribution of low-cost medications to HIV/AIDS patients.

MSF is also engaging in pressure tactics this week in the Italian port city of Genoa, during the summit of the Group of Eight (G-8) most powerful nations: Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and US.

The humanitarian organisation demands that the governments of the G-8 countries, as well as the leaders of developing countries, assume the responsibility for re-launching research and development of neglected diseases.

In this way, they can help compensate for the market’s failings, argues MSF, pointing out that of the 1,393 new medications approved from 1975 to 1999, less than 1% was aimed at treating tropical diseases.

The G-8 must “stimulate generic competition in the production of essential medicines, encourage a differential (or tiered) pricing system, and create economies of scale through regional or global procurement.”

The humanitarian organisation also calls on governments to support the “flexible interpretation” of the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) in their own national legislation. – SUNS4941

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