Access to Drugs to be Focus of U.N. General Assembly Special Session on AIDS
In preparation for the U.N. General Assembly special session on HIV/AIDS this month, the Seattle Times examines the international debate over access to AIDS medications and how the meeting is "shaping up as a fight between developing nations and top industrialized countries." The conference comes at a "pivotal" time when developing nations are asking for lower drug prices and investigating alternative means of obtaining medications, such as manufacturing generic versions and parallel importing of cheaper drugs. Meanwhile, industrialized nations are seeking to "protect the patent rights" of pharmaceutical companies, but "seeking to maintain a human face on the AIDS issue," the Times reports.
'Setting the Stage'
A May meeting of the World Health Organization "set the stage" for the upcoming special session when officials rejected Brazil's call for the "protection of the right to produce cheap generic drugs in national emergencies" and instead passed a resolution "urg[ing] greater efforts toward tackling" HIV/AIDS. Brazil, which manufactures generic versions of several AIDS drugs for free distribution to its HIV-positive citizens, is at the center of the patent debate. The drug industry argues that programs like Brazil's "violat[e] their patents," and the U.S. government has "threatened" countries that produce generic drugs in violation of international trade rules with "trade retaliations." However, Brazilian officials have not "budged" from their stance and have recently used their government-run pharmaceutical program as leverage to "wrestl[e]" discounts from Merck on efavirenz, one of the four AIDS drugs the government does not produce. Brazil's success is a "nightmare" for drug companies, the Times reports, because it "exposes" a World Trade Organization loophole that permits governments to disregard patent protections in the case of a national health emergency. In April, Brazil introduced to the U.N. Human Rights Commission a nonbinding resolution asking that international agreements be "'supportive of public health policies' that promote affordable drugs and medical technologies." Every nation on the panel voted for the resolution, except the United States, which abstained. Drug company officials fear that laws such as Brazil's and South Africa's Medicines and Related Substances Act mark the beginning of a "domino effect" that will challenge their patent claims throughout the developing world, and the debate is sure to continue through the special session, the Times reports (Pontes de Campos, Seattle Times, 6/13).