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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

AIDS Drug Cost Could Go From $70 to $10,000

In 2000, it cost $10,000 per year for antiretroviral (ARV) treatment of HIV patients in the third world -- today, that cost is 70 bucks for the same period. If the pharmaceutical giant Novartis has its way, that will all change.

Doctors Without Borders/Medicins Sans Frontieres:

As pharmaceutical company Novartis proceeded with its legal challenge against the Indian government in a court hearing in Chennai, India, today, nearly a quarter of a million people from over 150 countries expressed their concern about the negative impact the company's actions could have on access to medicines in developing countries. The Indian Network for People with HIV/AIDS (INP+), the People's Health Movement, the Centre for Trade and Development (Centad), together with the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), called on the company again today to immediately cease its legal action in India.

Novartis is pursuing legal action against India for developing and selling a generic version of its drug, Gleevic/Glivec -- a cancer treating drug that's also used in treating HIV/AIDS. In 2006, India rejected a patent for the drug, allowing indian companies to manufacture it. Prior to 2005, India didn't patent drugs, leaving drugs developed before then in the public domain -- for lack of a better term. An indian court found that Gleevic was simply a form of matinib mesylate and wasn't patentable. Under indian law, a medication is only patentable if it's a new drug, not an improvement on older drugs. The purpose of the law is to spur innovation. Novartis claims that India's patent law violates the rules of the World Trade Organization.

You ever notice how WTO rules never actually seem to help anyone other than corporations? We get a lot of happy talk about it from global free market moonies, but it never actually seems to do anything on the ground -- not anything good anyway. We were told that NAFTA would help poorer nations south of the border, but we're seeing more people fleeing economic disaster in the form of illegal immigration. As a reaction to unfair trade policies, a wave of leftist leaders have been elected in Central and South America. Hugo Chavez is a child of global free trade rules.

These trade agreements are a case of putting trade above national sovereignty. As we see with India, these nations are finding that it's possible for domestic laws to be illegal, since the trade agreements are treaties and treaties are international law. If India's law is found illegal, India may have to pay fines for every day they enforce their patent law. Laws designed to help or protect people or the environment are routine casualties of WTO rulings.

Third World Traveler:

Clean Air: A regulation of the Clean Air Act enabled the government to set a mandatory gasoline cleanliness standard for oil refiners. This law was applied equally to foreign and domestic refiners in the interest of minimizing air pollution. After the WTO ruled that the law violated GATT rules, the U.S. amended the rule, allowing in less clean gasoline.

Artificial Hormone in Beef: The European Union (EU) has a public health ban on beef containing artificial hormones. In May 1997, a WTO panel declared that the European Union's ban on imports of beef produced with artificial growth hormones violated international trade rules and was consequently illegal. Not only was public health risk disregarded by the WTO under the cover of free trade, but so was the popular will. For the law's principal purpose was to meet widespread popular concerns among European consumers over chemicals in food. With its ruling, the WTO has shown that it has the power to go over the heads of democratically elected governments to decide what health or environmental rules have a 'valid' scientific basis.

Endangered species: The US Marine Mammal Act placed an embargo on tuna caught with dolphin-killing methods. It was denounced by Mexico as a protectionist trade weapon designed to close markets to foreign competitors. Rather than reform its practices, Mexico sued the US and succeeded in having the law declared illegal under GATT rules, under the pretext that the way in which a product is produced may not be used as grounds for trade discrimination.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act bans the import of shrimp from the U.S. or abroad caught without inexpensive devices that protect endangered sea turtles from slaughter from shrimp fishing nets. The WTO ruled against the U.S. law because it was an illegal encroachment on the sovereignty of other governments for the U.S. to set rules for what can enter the U.S. market.

In effect, global trade rules enforce a lowest common denominator, favoring a lower level of protection over the common good. In India's case, the trade rules may put the bottom line of big pharma above the global good. MSF again:

If Novartis wins the case and succeeds in getting the provision of Indian law changed to resemble patent laws in wealthy countries, patents may be granted in India as broadly as they are in wealthy countries. This will mean that fewer and possibly no generic versions of newer drugs will be able to be produced by Indian manufacturers during the patent terms of at least 20 years, and India will no longer be able to supply much of the developing world with cheap essential medicines.

The example of HIV/AIDS medicines is a good illustration of the problem. Even though older drugs to treat HIV/AIDS have become affordable thanks to generic competition, the availability of newer and improved drugs is crucial, as people become resistant to the drug combinations they take after a certain amount of time and inevitably need to be switched to newer "second-line" drug regimens. Data from MSF's project in Khayelitsha, South Africa, illustrates this growing need: 17.4 percent of people on treatment there for five years have had to switch to a newer drug combination. Yet today, newer drugs are largely still only available from originator companies holding patents, which keeps prices high and availability low. This is because Indian manufacturers have been reluctant to start producing these newer medicines, as they fear production would have to stop if patents were granted on these drugs in India. This in turn has led to the fact that prices for newer AIDS medicines can be up to 50 times more expensive than older drugs.

Medecins Sans Frontieres has an online petition to Novartis to drop their case. I have my doubts as to whether appealing to the company will do any good -- I always say you can't shame the shameless -- but if MSF shares the petition with governments, there's a chance that global opinion could give countries like India leverage in future talks.


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