Seattle, November 30, 1999 — The international medical relief agency Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today called on member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO) urgently to address the growing crisis in access to lifesaving medicines in the developing world by creating a Standing Working Group on Access to Medicines. Such a working group would examine how international trade laws impact the availability of effective and affordable medicines for infectious diseases that kill 17 million people each year.
"Why are we, a medical humanitarian agency, here in Seattle at the start of the WTO ministerial meeting on trade?" asked Bernard Pécoul, M.D., director of the Médecins Sans Frontières Access to Essential Medicines Campaign, in an address to the official WTO symposium on non-governmental organizations. "Because our patients are dying. They are dying because of lack of access to lifesaving medicines and the lack of research and development for neglected diseases. Lifesaving medicines are available but they are simply too expensive, due in large part to patent protection."
Access to medicines for communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria, and sleeping sickness is a matter of life and death. The WTO must take the lead to ensure that trade of essential medicines is regulated in the interest of public health. A WTO Standing Working Group on Access to Medicines would work to review issues concerning intellectual property rules as they relate to access to medicines. The working group must also facilitate usage by developing countries of the existing provisions within the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that allow for the protection of health. The World Health Organization (WHO) and other relevant international organizations should play an active role in supporting the activities of the working group.
MSF is not questioning the importance of patents in stimulating research and development, but rather is insisting that a balance be found between protecting intellectual property and ensuring individuals’ access to medicines. As it now stands, a lucrative market for lifesaving drugs simply does not exist in the developing world despite the fact that more than 90 percent of all deaths and suffering from infectious diseases occurs there. Out of 1,223 new drugs brought onto the market worldwide between 1975 and 1997, only 13 were for tropical diseases. Market forces alone are not enough to address the need for affordable medicines or to stimulate research and development for neglected diseases.
"As doctors we deal with the human reality of suffering from curable and neglected diseases every day," said Dr. Pécoul. "We cannot and will not ignore this. Our patients are dying, not because their diseases are incurable, but because as consumers, they do not provide a viable market for pharmaceutical products."
MSF is the world's largest independent international medical relief agency aiding victims of armed conflict, epidemics, and natural and man-made disasters, and others who lack health care due to geographic remoteness or ethnic marginalization in more than 80 countries.