Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Southeast Asia
     Oct 25, 2005
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 Europe.

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 human pandemic."

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 midst.

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."

(Inter Press Service)

Time the enemy in bird-flu fight (Sep 23, '05)

Something foul with bird flu program (Sep 8, '05)

Deadly avian flu on the wing (Aug 18, '05)

Bird flu: An ill wind from the East (Jul 1, '05)

asia dive site

Asia Dive Site


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110