U.N. Envoy for AIDS in Africa Calls on Group of Seven Nations To Allow Generic Antiretroviral Drug Exports
Wealthy nations need to adopt new strategies to allow the production and distribution of generic antiretroviral drugs to African countries hit hard by the AIDS epidemic, U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis said on Thursday during a speech at the 13th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, Reuters reports. Lewis, who aimed his comments at the Group of Seven industrialized nations -- United States, Japan, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Canada -- said that a wealthy country should issue a compulsory license to lift its patent protections on the antiretroviral drugs on the World Health Organization's list (Macharia, Reuters, 9/25). Lewis said that such a move by one of the seven nations could break the gridlock that is preventing mass production of the drugs (Nolen, Globe and Mail, 9/25). Once a country issues a compulsory license, generic drug makers could manufacture the medications and export them to Africa. Lewis said that easing patent restrictions is urgent in light of the WHO declaration earlier this week that the lack of access to antiretroviral drugs is a global health emergency and the agency's commitment to providing the medications to three million people in developing countries by 2005. "If the WHO is going to boost treatment in Africa, they will need a fast, reliable, scientifically sound flow of generic drugs in order to keep the prices low at $250 to $300 per person per year," Lewis said.
Plan Consistent With WTO Agreement
Lewis said that his plan, which he called "somewhat unorthodox," is consistent with a World Trade Organization agreement on generic drug access reached last month (Reuters, 9/25). WTO negotiators on Aug. 30 reached an agreement to allow developing countries to issue a compulsory license in order to import the drugs if the country confirms that it cannot domestically manufacture the drugs itself. However, many groups fear that the deal could get tangled in red tape and that the generic pharmaceutical industry is not overly excited about supplying generic drugs to countries in need (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 9/9). Lewis said, "The big pharmaceutical firms in the G7 would not suffer one whit: these drugs would be for export only, domestic prices would not change." He added, "There could even be a time limit, say five years, until Africa develops an indigenous manufacturing capacity."
Lewis Calls on Canada
During his speech, Lewis called on Canada to take the lead in issuing a compulsory license, saying, "I would wish it to be my country, Canada, but it really doesn't matter much" (Reuters, 9/25). Lewis said that Canada's large generic drug industry and Prime Minister Jean Chretien's decision to make HIV/AIDS a foreign policy priority make the country a prime candidate, according to the Globe and Mail. He said that "undertak[ing] a simple legislative amendment allowing for the production and export of generic antiretrovirals ... would make a tremendous difference for Africa," adding, "It would save millions of lives, it would cost nothing and it's such an easy thing to do" (Globe and Mail, 9/25). Almost directly answering the "call to arms" made by Lewis, Canada's Industry Minister Allan Rock and International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew on Thursday said that they want to amend the country's patent laws to allow generic drug firms to produce some patent-protected drugs for export, including antiretroviral drugs, the Globe and Mail reports. The ministers said they will seek an "all-party approval" for a short amendment to current patent laws and hope to push the amendment through Parliament in about one week, according to Liberal House Leader Don Boudria. Rock said, "I'd like to see it happen as soon as we can. I think it's consistent with the prime minister's African agenda, and it would show leadership on the part of Canada to support global health concerns" (Scoffield/Chase, Globe and Mail, 9/26).
Although fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa will require "more than readily available, cheap medicine," the "urgent need now is for the drugs that can stave off millions of deaths," according to a Globe and Mail editorial. Major drug makers are "understandably unhappy about the prospect of any tinkering with patent legislation" to allow for generic drug exportation -- the "only guarantee of long-term protection from cheap generic competition; however, the exports would not "affect the drug companies' sales in their major markets," according to the editorial. In the meantime, there is "nothing to prevent the patent-holders themselves from taking the initiative and shipping the drugs at cost, rather than letting the generic makers slip into their shoes," the Globe and Mail says. The editorial concludes that in either scenario, without "emergency help" in the form of generic antiretroviral drugs, the African continent's "death toll will soar" (Globe and Mail, 9/26).