Patent Rights vs Patient Rights

Academics, social activists, public health advocates, government officials
and politicians from Africa, Asia, South and North America, Australia and Europe met in Oslo on 22-24 May 2000 at a workshop entitled 'Patent Rights vs. Patient Rights' to discuss access to essential drugs, including treatment for AIDS. They issued the following call for access to basic technologies and essential drugs.

WE observed with dismay that the world is currently facing a global health crisis characterised by growing inequities within and between countries. Despite medical advances and increasing life expectancy, there is disturbing evidence of rising disparities in health status among people worldwide. Enduring poverty with all its facets and, in addition, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and related problems are leading to reversal of previous health gains.

We noted that the public's undoubted right to health, as set out in the Constitution of the World Health Organisation, WHO, brings with it a need and a right to have access to medicines. At the present day, however, even basic medicines are not within reach for a great part of the world's population, particularly in developing countries. Price is the major obstacle for access to many essential drugs since most drugs are priced far beyond the means of individuals or even of governments in developing countries. This results in a global tragedy marked by avoidable ill-health and deaths on a large scale.

Therefore, we call upon the people and governments of Europe, in particular the Scandinavian countries, to support the developing countries in ensuring access to basic medical technologies and essential drugs, including treatment for HIV/AIDS and other serious conditions, utilising the safeguard provisions of the TRIPS agreement to the fullest, such as compulsory licensing and parallel import, within the framework of national comprehensive health and drug policy.

We also call upon the governments of the industrialised countries to take a clear stand against the interference by any country seeking to use its economic power in a manner which undermines the sovereignty of third world countries; the latter must be entirely free to exercise their legal responsibility under international rights and obligations and the moral duties to their people, such as provision of essential drugs and other social services by utilising international treaties, e.g. TRIPS.

Further, we urge the Third World countries to make adequate allocations for health and other social sectors to ensure access to all essential medicines by improving manufacturing and procurement capacity, including ensuring greater access through such means as compulsory licencing and parallel import in a manner consistent with TRIPS art. 30 and 31, in particular 31-k.

Recently five major pharmaceutical companies announced the reduction of prices for certain anti-retroviral drugs in sub-Saharan Africa. Even if this intent is implemented, the resultant price will remain far beyond the purchasing capacity of the people of most countries of the world. Experience with a similar initiative at an earlier date did not yield the desired results. There is a strong need to make the drug pricing mechanism transparent to enable countries to purchase drugs at the most favourable prices, and to secure greater investment in research and development in tropical drugs with a corresponding reduction in the currently very high costs of marketing.

Acknowledging the fact that many drugs, including drugs for AIDS, cancer, malaria etc, have been developed by public funds through university and government laboratories, or in other ways funded by tax-payers and non-profit foundations, we urge national governments to invest money for research on diseases prevalent in the respective countries usually affecting the poor, and impose an obligation on all pharmaceutical companies, national and foreign, to reinvest a fair percentage of their pharmaceutical sales income for the same purpose.

We call upon the World Health Organisation to monitor and circulate regularly and systematically information on drug prices in various countries and expiry dates of patents, to enable poor countries to benefit from such information. The WHO should also assist poor countries to procure affordable drugs through implementation of a strong generic drug policy, bulk purchasing, negotiations with pharmaceutical companies and adequate financing.

We further urge the WHO to take a lead role in initiating research into poverty-related diseases and health service delivery, with the financial help from its wealthier member states. And we congratulate those European countries that have fulfilled their obligation to allocate 0.7% of their respective national income for the development of the Third World countries, and urge all rich countries to follow suit and fulfil their international obligations.

We renew the call on the World Trade Organisation, made in the Amsterdam Statement of 28 November 1999, to form a working group on access to medicine to examine critical issues that effect the implementation of the existing TRIPS agreement.

We strongly urge the civil society and NGO networks to participate actively in increasing access to essential drugs and examining the sometimes adverse  repercussions  of  international  trade  agreements  on  the  lives of ordinary citizens in developing countries.

The international Workshop on Patent Rights vs Patient Rights was jointly organised by the University of Bergen and University of Tromso, Medecins Sans Frontieres and Diakonhjemmet International Centre, and took place at Diakonhjemmet, Oslo, Norway.

(Aug-Sept 2000)