European Commission Looks at Link Between Patents and Prices of Life-saving Drugs in Poor Countries

Brussels, 28 September 2000 — Today, the European Commission met with leaders of poor countries and with the Directors of WHO and UNAIDS in a roundtable to address three diseases that are threatening to wipe out the economic gains of the last fifty years – tuberculosis, AIDS, and malaria. Communicable diseases are responsible for 60 percent of the total disease burden in developing countries and kill 5 million people each year. Worldwide 34 million people are infected with HIV, one person dies every 30 seconds from malaria, and nearly one billion people will be newly infected with TB over the next twenty years.

At today's high-level round table, the WHO, UNAIDS and the European Commission proposed a blueprint for increasing life expectancy in poor countries by directly attacking these three leading killers. Although the proposal is strong on much needed prevention efforts, it is weak on ensuring that the sick have access to newer life-saving medicines.

"Today's roundtable shows that the Commission is serious about tackling disease and poverty, and is open to the use of WTO safeguards which balance the negative effects of patents. But there is still a long way to go." said Dr. Bernard Pécoul of Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF). "How can the EU be serious about fighting Aids in poor countries if they are not willing to discuss treatment for patients with drug cocktails. We need a political commitment that Europe will not stand by and watch while 26 million people die of Aids in Africa because medicines are too expensive."

At the roundtable, to present the case for dramatically lower prices of important health interventions in developing countries, MSF used the example of vaccines and contraceptives. Because of the public health need, and clear political commitment, the polio vaccine is priced 125 times less in poor countries than in wealthy ones. The situation is very similar with oral contraceptives, the difference between the US retail price and the price paid by national family planning programs is between 130–214 times.

NGOs and other public health advocates are demanding a political commitment from the EU to support developing countries to implement this type of price differential. If companies are not willing to offer these levels of price deductions, than poor country governments must be allowed to use WTO compliant measures to override patents. Competition from generic medicines should also be encouraged.

"We have a moral obligation to ensure that new life-saving medicines, such as antibiotics and anti-Aids drugs, are affordable and available to people who need them," said Dr. Bernard Pécoul. "We have the tools to solve this problem. We have already done it with vaccines and contraceptives, its time to do it with medicines for Aids and for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis." he added.

At the roundtable, MSF urged national governments in poor countries to use the safeguards that are built into the WTO agreements on intellectual property (TRIPS), when companies are not willing to reduce prices to levels that make drugs affordable. In the recent "Communication of the Commission to the Council and European Parliament" on this issue, the Commission brought to light the possibility of using compulsory licensing to override patents on medicines in poor countries. This is a radical shift. In November 99, an official of DG trade stated at a public meeting, that patents had nothing to do with the access crisis and should not be used as a mechanism to address this issue. MSF welcomed this shift of position.