A dose of double standards over bird flu By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - With hardly a hint of shame, voices from the Western world's
political establishment are exhibiting a view that seems to suggest the lives
of people in the developed world matter more than those that populate the other
side of the planet.
A typical example is Chuck Schumer, a member of the US Senate from New York,
who has even issued a threat to pressure the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Roche,
to give up its right to protect the patent on Tamiflu, the only drug currently
capable of fighting the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus.
As Schumer sees it, Roche should license out production to generic
manufacturers since it lacks the capacity to produce sufficient amounts of its
patented drug. This comes in wake of
fears that the world could be hit by a global pandemic if the bird flu
virus mutates into one that could be passed among humans.
"If they don't begin to actually license the patent for Tamiflu to dramatically
increase worldwide production, I am going to pursue a legislative remedy a
month from today," he said in a statement, according to media reports from
Washington DC. "Roche is putting their own interest ahead of world health. They
should not be slow-walking this process when we have a potential pandemic that
could occur at any time."
By Thursday, Roche had caved in, agreeing to give the license to manufacture
Tamil flu to four US generic drug manufacturers.
Such enlightened thinking, that public health matters more than Roche's profit
margins, has come only after reports that the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which
has haunted Southeast Asia since January last year, has winged its way into
European health authorities felt that such a turn of events was sufficient
grounds to label bird flu a "global threat". And to save its citizens from a
potential pandemic - the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that a deadly
influenza virus from bird flu could kill millions - European Union (EU)
officials have started talks with the pharmaceutical industry.
Asian countries that have long been affected by bird flu - such as Thailand
where 13 people have died since the virus began infecting the local poultry
population last year and Vietnam, the worst hit with 43 deaths - have not had
the same luxury of behaving like political leaders in the US or EU.
For they, like others in the developing world, are well aware of the fierce
defense mounted by the US and the EU to protect the patents of drugs produced
by their pharmaceutical giants, despite such medicines being desperately needed
to save the lives of millions in the Third World.
"The reaction in the US and the US is not only double standards at play but one
of absurdity too," Nicola Bullard of Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based
think tank, told IPS. "It is absurd because they want Roche to give up its
rights on the patent for a disease that is only a threat and doesn't exist as a
There has been no hint of sympathy from the leaders in the US toward people in
the developing world who are directly affected by pandemics and have limited
access to expensive drugs produced by pharmaceutical companies, she added.
Patients in the developing world who are victims of such discrimination are
those suffering from diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis (TB).
AIDS killed more than 3 million people last year, the majority of them in
Africa, while TB killed 2 million and malaria 1 million.
Only last month, the humanitarian agency, Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF -
Doctors without Borders), wrote to the World Trade Organization (WTO) about the
consequences of greed being placed above human lives when it comes to diseases
that affect Third World people.
"The HIV/AIDS crises has shown the urgent need to ensure that essential
medicines are available at affordable prices," MSF wrote to Pascal Lamy, the
new director general of the WTO. "[This will worsen] as the impact of patent
protection on HIV programs becomes [more] apparent in the coming years."
One of Southeast Asia's poorest countries, Cambodia, is a case in point. As a
result of becoming a new member of the WTO last year, it is facing the prospect
of losing access to cheap generic anti-AIDS drugs for its HIV patients due to
the pressure applied by the US and EU to protect the world's pharma giants.
Cambodia has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the Asia-Pacific region, with
nearly 1.9% of adults infected with the killer virus.
Currently, not even half of the 6 million people who need anti-AIDS drugs have
access to them in the developing world, resulting in early death for those
infected with the AIDS virus. In contrast, people with HIV in the developed
world are not troubled by a premature death due to the availability of
anti-retroviral drugs they can afford.
But this is not the first time the world is witnessing leaders in the West
conveniently ignoring a principle they have sanctified - that patents of the
pharma giants must be protected - as a result of public-health crises in their
Countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and
the United States have resorted to violating international rules governing
intellectual property rights when faced with public-health emergencies at home.
That was achieved by these governments resorting to "compulsory licensing",
which is a measure in international commerce that permits a country to break a
patent on a drug and get local generic manufacturers to produce a drug. To
compensate the patent holder, the generic producer offers a reasonable royalty
on the sale of the generic product.
"Until joining the North American Free Trade [Agreement - NAFTA] in 1992,
Canada routinely issued compulsory licenses for pharmaceuticals, paying a 4%
royalty rate on the net sales price," a UN agency stated in a study some years
ago on intellectual property rights. "Between 1969 and 1992 such licenses were
granted in 613 cases for importing or manufacturing generic medicines.
"In the United States, compulsory licensing has been used as a remedy in more
than 100 antitrust case settlements, including cases involving antibiotics,
synthetic steroids and several biotechnology patents."
Yet as analysts such as Bullard argue, governments in the developing world are
denied this privilege, as if the lives of the poor should matter less than
those in the affluent West.
The case being made by Schumer will only reinforce such a belief, she adds.
"There is no getting away from the fact that public goods and public health
must take precedence over a pharmaceutical corporation's profits."