Patent Theft Pending

[Here’s the From the Editor page for the latest issue of my magazine]

In America, the July 4th holiday involves an entertaining combination of patriotic fervor and minor explosives. As a nation, we celebrate the declaration of our independence from the one country that we now call our closest ally (supposedly, the British also celebrate July 4th, but they call it “thanksgiving”).

In Brazil, the July 4th weekend evidently involves a game of brinksmanship (not surprising, in a country legendary for knife-fighting). The country’s health ministry gave Abbott Laboratories a July 6th deadline to drop the cost of its HIV/AIDS drug Kaletra, threatening to declare a “public health crisis” and employ a World Trade Organization process to break Abbott’s patent on the drug.

This would lead, at a minimum, to a generic version of the drug in Brazil, in which 600,000 people are infected with HIV/AIDS. That’s a pretty significant impact, but the Associated Press report on this subject actually goes a step further:

Poor countries without drug industries could take steps to authorize imports from Brazil, experts said. And developing countries with robust generic drug production capacity like India and China could be tempted to follow Brazil’s example, creating a bigger threat to the global reach of multinational pharmaceutical companies.

Now, maybe I’m being paranoid (could have something to do with all those explosives that went off this weekend), but “global reach of multinationals” sounds to me like the Pharma biz is being characterized as the Evil Empire (again), and that voiding patents is a viable way to “stick it to the Man” (note that “the Man” in this case is providing Brazil with the lowest price on Kaletra outside of Africa).
India and China have spent years trying to get up to snuff on intellectual property rights, so we wouldn’t possibly imagine that a news organ like AP would champion their reversion to IP theft. On the other hand, maybe I’m just overreacting:

“The impact of breaking the patent would be enormous,” said Michael Bailey, a senior policy adviser for Oxfam International. “If a major country such as Brazil goes through with this, not only will it help ensure sustainability of their excellent treatment program, it will set a hugely important precedent for other countries.”

Nope! It’s pretty clear that this rep from Oxfam believes (along with an HIV-infected Sao Paolo university professor, and a spokesman for Doctors Without Brains Borders, both quoted in the article) that Brazil’s best path is to void the patent for Kaletra, and then sell the generic form to other countries!

The “hugely important precedent” it would set? That would be “don’t bother researching drugs in this field; we’re just going to get your patents voided.” Then we can see how well Brazil “ensures sustainability” of its treatment program when no new treatments are developed. Last I checked, viruses don’t stand still.

(I want to be fair here, and point out that the article quotes Brazil’s health minister as saying that the country has no plans to export the drug. I also point out that the article fails to quote a single Pharma company spokesman, and the only industry statement is a threat from the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations to withdraw investment and jobs from Brazil.)

–Gil Roth

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