World Trade Talks to Address Whether Patents or Poverty Primary Barrier to AIDS Drug Access in Africa
The New York Times today profiles how the debate over the patents on AIDS drugs will be "a major bone of contention" at the World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar, this week (McNeil, New York Times, 11/5). WTO delegates from 52 developing countries on Sept. 19 asked other WTO ministers to approve a proposal that would clarify language in the Trade-Related Aspects of International Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement to say that TRIPS would "not prevent governments from taking measures necessary to protect public health," including the production or importation of generic AIDS drugs (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 10/4). The debate over patents and access to AIDS drugs has been fueled by a study published in the Oct. 17 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association stating that poverty, not patents, is hindering access to AIDS drugs in developing countries. The pharmaceutical industry and "sympathetic trade officials" in the Bush administration are citing the study in their effort to oppose the developing nations' WTO proposal. However, AIDS activists say study co-author Dr. Amir Attaran "tailor[ed] and tim[ed]" the publication of the research to "serve the drug industry" during the upcoming WTO meeting. Attaran called the allegations "sickening," adding that he did not receive any money from drug companies and that his data "was only 'a narrow case study of one drug category in Africa in 2001'" (New York Times, 11/5). Meanwhile, developing nations supporting the proposal for modifying TRIPS say that the United States is "applying a double standard" to the patent issue because of the government's threat to override the patent on Bayer's anti-anthrax drug Cipro unless Bayer cut the price of the medicine. Jose Viana, an adviser to Brazil's health minister, said, "Tommy Thompson may not know it but he became our ally when he threatened that patent. He did what he thought was in the best interest of his country. Why can't others do the same?" U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said that Thompson's actions "complied with TRIPS," and pharmaceutical company executives note that "the patent [on Cipro] was never overriden" (Agovino, AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 11/3).
Solution for Patent 'Melodrama'
In an opinion piece for the New York Times, business columnist Daniel Akst offers a three-part solution for the patent "melodrama." He states that the U.S. government should first become the sole purchaser of medicines, a method employed by some European countries to "help offset the monopoly pricing power of patent holders." In addition, a government panel of scientists should "designate the highest-priority ailments based on prevalence, years of life lost and cost to the economy" and assign full 17-year patents to those drugs. Medicines for "lesser maladies" would receive shorter patents. The "most important" part of the solution would involve the government making "dollar-for-dollar" matching grants to pharmaceutical companies for research and development in return for a 50% stake in any resulting patents. Akst writes that this would allow the government to cut a drug's price by forgoing its profit share in times of a public health emergency. The cost of this solution would be "relatively small," he concludes (Akst, New York Times, 11/4).