Business Day yesterday published my story on the clash between WHO’s Public Health strategy and the South African IPR Act (see the gray area blog article on the same topic a few weeks ago for a different version of the same argument). I am glad that there is at last some discussion of these issues in the media, which tends to treat IPR issues as too arcane to engage with, although the Treatment Action Campaign has gone a long way towards dissipating that view.
In the mean time, the discussion on IPR and public health in developing countries continues unabated. There is an interview in the IP Watch newsletter with Ellen t’Hoen, the senior advisor on intellectual property and medicines patent pool at UNITAID, a financing mechanism for the scale-up of treatments for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. t Hoen recently published a book entitled, The Global Politics Of Pharmaceutical Monopoly Power.
The concern t’Hoen expresses relates to potential problems with the availability of cheaper generic medicines in developing countries. The countries that use the DOHA provisions for the import of generics for public health reasons (mostly for HIV AiIDs) rely heavily on imports from India. Now , she says, there is a change looming that is likely to threaten this (perfectly legal) supply:
Indian producers are able to make generic versions of these medicines because of the 1970 Indian Patents Act which excluded product patents for medicines. As of 2005, India has to comply with the TRIPS Agreement and has started to grant product patents on medicines. So very soon this is going to change. Generic versions of newer drugs will not become available automatically until after the 20-year patent term has run out. Unless of course India starts granting compulsory licences or other mechanisms are put in place to ensure that generic producers can continue to play this role, such as the patent pool.
‘t Hoen has sharp words to say about the fact that special provisions for affordable drugs in developing countries, at the insistence of the rights holders, apply only to neglected diseases and exclude non-communicable diseases. Asked whether there was significance in this distinction, she replied, ‘Well from a medical point of view, of course there isn’t – it’s whether you die of AIDS or whether you die of heart disease… well, you’re dead. It’s just as serious.’ She is equally sharp with the argument that patent protection is needed to ensure research and development of new drugs and limit the supply of new drugs for developing country diseases:
In the past pharmaceutical companies have en masse abandoned research into neglected diseases. That’s why they became neglected diseases. Much of the innovation for tropical diseases comes from military research and government research that comes out of the old colonial systems: the tropical disease centres and the Vietnam War, which gave for example a number of malaria drugs.
So I don’t quite see that argument. I don’t think that if we close down the generic industry in the developing world that big pharma will spontaneously start reinvesting in tropical neglected diseases.
This is disturbing but very cogent stuff about why IPR does matter – read it.