U.S. Action at WTO Threatens Brazil's Successful AIDS Program

New York/Geneva, February 1, 2001 — Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is calling upon the United States government to withdraw its request for a World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement procedure on the Brazilian patent law. The US government's complaint requests measures that might handicap the successful Brazilian AIDS control program, which is largely based on Brazil's ability to manufacture affordable medicines. In particular, the US is opposing Brazil's system for granting compulsory licenses, a government's right to override patents in certain circumstances. MSF supports the use of compulsory licensing to remedy negative effects of excessive patent protection of essential medicines.

"The US complaint threatens the Brazilian AIDS policy, which includes providing free drugs to people with HIV/AIDS. The lives of hundreds of thousands of patients depend on this system," says Bernard Pécoul, MD, Director of MSF's Access to Essential Medicines Campaign. "The US action will also intimidate countries that would like to take up Brazil's offer to help them produce AIDS medicines."

MSF supports the call made by more than 120 Brazilian non-governmental organizations to safeguard the country's HIV/AIDS treatment program, which has been internationally lauded. The Brazilian government is currently treating over 90,000 HIV/AIDS patients with antiretroviral (ARV) therapy, which has decreased AIDS deaths by 50% since the policy was introduced. It has also significantly improved the quality of life of people living with AIDS, and saved the government an estimated $422 million in hospitalization and medical care costs from 1997 to 1999. A key factor in the success of this program is the free distribution of ARV drugs, many of which are manufactured domestically by Brazilian companies. Generic production has led to a dramatic fall in the prices of ARVs available in the country, making it possible for the government to provide them for free.

The Brazilian intellectual property law of 1996 requires the patent holder to manufacture the product in Brazil. If this does not happen, the government can issue a compulsory license to another producer, unless the patent holder can show that local production is not feasible.

The Brazilian patent policy has been key to the success of the strategies to offer universal access to HIV/AIDS medication in Brazil. Brazil has offered assistance to other developing countries to develop similar antiretroviral production facilities at the national or regional level.