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Threat to the poor's access to medicines

By unknown | Mar 07, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Jeremy Clarke

NAIROBI - Aids patients queue at dawn outside a small medical centre at Mathare slum in Kenya.

Ivy Mwangi has 1800 HIV patients, but as the queue grows, her thoughts are on a court case in India.

The proceedings pit Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG against an Indian patent system that it says stifles innovation.

"Even with innovation and the development of new drugs, if this case goes through, they won't be available to millions who need HIV treatment in the developing world," she said.

At first glance, the link is obscure. Novartis does not actually make Aids medicines. The drug under discussion in a Chennai courtroom, Glivec, is a treatment for rare cancers.

But the trial has become a flash point in a long-running battle between the big pharmaceutical companies and humanitarian campaigners who argue that manufacturers are putting patents ahead of patients.

According to UNAids, about 40million people globally are infected with HIV, two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Most, like Mwangi's patients, are poor.

Health campaigners fear stronger patent laws enacted by India in 2005 - which Novartis is trying to shore up - will jeopardise India's role as a source of cheap generic medicines for the needy.

Medical agency Doctors Without Borders estimates that more than half the Aids drugs used in poor countries come from India. If Novartis wins its case, more medicines will end up being patented, making it difficult to manufacture cheap copies.

The company insists that tighter intellectual property laws will ensure future investment in new medicines by rewarding research.

"I'm convinced patents save lives, because without them, you cannot discover and develop new drugs and get them to patients," said Paul Herrling, Novartis head of corporate research.

Novartis said safeguards already exist in international trade agreements.

This protects access to essential medicines by allowing for the export of drugs produced under compulsory licenses and issued for public health reasons.

Many companies also run access programmes, which offer affordable brand-name equivalents to cheap generics.

But still, the row has uncomfortable reverberations for the global drugs industry, which stands accused of not doing enough to improve the health of the world's poorest. - Reuters


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