TRIPS no obstacle to drugs for poor, claims Clare Short

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 23 Oct 2000 -- The WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights is not an obstacle to access to drugs by the poor, and protecting IPRs is in fact in the interests of the poor, Mrs. Clare Short, the UK Secretary of State for International Development Cooperation declared here last week.

Mrs. Short came to Geneva to address the UNCTAD Trade and Development Board. Not surprisingly perhaps, and given the thrust of her address to defend globalization and the WTO TRIPS accord, and the global pharmaceutical industry (with several UK firms and their interests involved), apart from UNCTAD’s media alerts, the World Trade Organization media office too put out a media alert to journalists about her address to the UNCTAD Board!

Addressing the Board, Mrs Short said that globalization should be used to eradicate the diseases of poverty, and went to claim that the “key obstacle” to eradicating the burden of communicable diseases in developing countries, where close to three million people die each year from malaria and tuberculosis, had not been the cost “but the failure of governments and health systems to make them available and accessible to the poor.”

Mrs. Short, an exponent of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s New Labour philosophy, mounted a strong defence of the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement—which has become a focus of sharp attack from non-governmental organizations of the developing and developed countries who are charging the global monopoly rights enshrined in the TRIPS as being responsible for the high price of drugs and putting health and medical care beyond the reach of the poor. Even World Bank staff papers, and UNDP’s Human Development Reports have brought out the negative effects of TRIPS on the costs of essential drugs, and its even greater deleterious impact on industrialization of the developing world.

But Mrs.Short did not refer to these, but only to street demonstrators and the “destructive and violent” forces in Seattle and Prague.

Mrs. Short interspersed her speech with such sound bites as “globalization is a fact” and accusing her favouring globalization was “equivalent to accusing me of being in favour of the sun rising in the morning.”

She spoke of the need to make globalization work to improve the health of the poorest and focusing on the diseases of poverty. To have a major impact on the health of the poor, there was need to focus on affordable and effective drugs and vaccines to target diseases that afflict the poor, and delivered through comprehensive health systems.

While technical innovation was bringing huge benefits, and new technology such as genetic engineering was generating new ways for tackling disease, most of the effort, she acknowledged, was targeted to diseases that were only of relevance to the industrial world. Only 10% of global research funds are dedicated to 90% of the disease burden affecting the poor. Even the Indian pharmaceutical industry, now investing heavily on research and development was working on drugs to sell to the west, “basing its decisions on sound economic judgement”.

Why is the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry not investing sufficiently in the areas of diseases of the poor? It was obviously partly a lack of potential markets and need to make a return on considerable investments needed to generate a new drug or vaccine, she went on, but there were also other complexities.

She refuted that TRIPS was the “most important obstacle” to access to drugs by the poor, and said this was not the case. “Trips,” she claimed, “simply requires that each country put in place measures to protect intellectual property,” she said, but failed to add that by setting global standards, and vesting patent holders with a monopoly right to import, the WTO and the TRIPS have set up an assured global monopoly and profits for the industry, without any balance in terms of public interest.

“A new drug or vaccine can cost as much as $350 million to develop. If there is no patent system to provide a return on that research, it will not be done and the needs of the poor will be neglected.”

She spoke of “equity pricing” for drugs, enabling pharmaceutical companies to sell patented drugs at near cost of manufacture in poor countries, and of ‘voluntary licensing’ by pharmaceutical companies.

She however failed to mention and advocate use of compulsory licensing and parallel imports by developing countries (legal under the TRIPS, but frowned upon by the US and Europeans).

Mrs. Short also suggested tax rebates by western governments for innovative drug development and providing “an extended life” to intellectual property for new drugs to tackle malaria and tuberculosis, and public funding for public research.

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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