TRIPS will push health care beyond poor

by Muddassir Rizvi

Karachi, Jul 28 (IPS) -- At an international meet in Pakistan this week, public health activists rejected the TRIPS or Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement, saying it will push up health care costs in developing countries.

If implemented, it will erode people's access to medicines, and help transnational pharmaceutical companies rake in huge profits, representatives of consumer group around the world said.

"Globalisation of pharmaceuticals will be a feast for the rich and a tragedy for the poor," said Dr K. Balasubramaniam, pharmaceutical adviser to the Consumers International, a union of more than 200 consumer organisations around the world.

"The world trade agreements that include TRIPS leave billions of poor consumers out in the cold without access to even a few of a basic essential drugs to treat common illnesses," he added.

The 'Convention on Impact of WTO/TRIPS on People's Access to Drugs' was organised in this port city by the regional grouping, SAARC's Chamber of Commerce and Industry in collaboration with Pakistan's Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation.

By Jan. 1 next year, developing countries have to bring their national laws in conformity with the provisions of the TRIPS agreement. Its supporters among drug transnationals (TNC) say the non-existence of product and process patent laws impede their efforts to manufacture new products.

As a result TNCs are losing millions of dollars, claimed Zafar Mooraj, on behalf of the Pakistan-based pharmaceutical giants. "An average of $500 million are spent on the development of a new drug over a period of 15 years," he further claimed.

But his claim was disputed by James Love, director of the US- based Consumer Project on Technology, who has played a key role in forcing the US government to support the South African initiative of marketing AIDS drugs through "compulsory licensing"and parallel import. "You can develop a new drug for a few million dollars," said Love.

He argued that the industry had spent only $213 million between 1983 to 1993 on developing 93 new orphan drugs (drugs for under 20,000 or less patient population) in the United States. "This figure included all costs from testing to approval by the Federal Drug Agency. This study ... surprised everybody and exposed the claims of the pharmaceutical companies that they spend huge amounts on developing new medicines," Love told participants.

In South Asia, activists are particularly concerned about the impact on people's access to medicines. They fear that patent protection will push up prices and cripple the local industry which does not have the resources to develop new drugs.

"They are talking about harmonising trade policies, but nobody is saying a word about harmonising the socio-economic conditions in the world," said Dr Zafar Mirza, executive Coordinator of The Network, a health advocacy group in Pakistan.

Regional governments lack the political will to provide their people with basic health facilities, he said. "So many people die in the region because they do not get essential medicines. Who is responsible for the deaths?"

Studies show that only 20 percent of drugs are distributed through government-run institutions like hospitals in the region. The public health delivery systems are so weak in South Asia that 80 percent of drugs are purchased directly by people. "Any policy decision related to enactment of new national legislation on intellectual property protection should take into consideration the effect of increased drug prices on the poor consumers," Dr Bala cautioned.

Government representatives at the meeting pleaded helplessness, saying there was not much they can do to back-track from the WTO.

An outspoken Bashir Ahmed, deputy chief of the International Trade Wing at Pakistan's Ministry of Commerce said, "TRIPS protect patents, not people. The industry's claim that it will protect the public health concerns is questionable." For pharmaceutical TNCs, developing countries account for more than 80% of their market but new research is targeted at a rich northern market, he added.

"Among the 1,223 new chemical entities developed during 1975- 1997, 379 are considered therapeutic innovations. Out of this only 13 were meant for tropical diseases with only four developed after targeted research," Mirza said. Neither would the new trade regime take into account the diverse socio-economic situations in the developing countries.

"All countries are at different stages of development. How could they be governed by the same law?" he asked.

James Love, however, advocates a moderate approach towards TRIPS and said the developing countries should use provisions in the TRIPS agreement to their benefit. Developing countries should devise their patent laws in a way that could keep "public health concerns paramount".

But the overwhelming opinion, as put forward by Dr Bala, was that developing countries can have better access only when chemical intermediates, raw materials and finished products are available at competitive prices in the world market. "This will not be possible when life-saving drugs are given protection for 20 years and patent holders have the exclusive monopoly for manufacture, distribution and sales," he warned.

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .