Monday, July 6, 2009

The Mercenaries of the Pharmaceutical World

The Kenya Anti-Counterfeit Law, which fails to distinguish between fake drugs and generic versions of drugs, has been signed for some time. People may have expected a country that depends on donor funding for much of its health programmes, especially HIV related programmes, to welcome a supply of cheap generic drugs from other countries that are struggling to create markets, such as Brazil and India. But it seems that the Kenyan government has done just what big pharmaceutical companies would have liked.

Now that the bill has been signed, there is pressure on the government to implement it. The pressure is coming from lobby groups and interested parties, so it remains to be seen exactly what the effect will be. No doubt other governments who are unable to provide their people with adequate health services, not to mention food, education and other social services, will copy the Kenyan government, with a lot of help and encouragement from the same lobby groups.

One of the reasons it is worthwhile making fakes is that branded goods are too expensive. When antiretroviral drugs were developed, with the help of massive amounts of public funding, the prices were set so high that there was little chance people in developing countries, where most HIV positive people lived, could afford them. Over the next few years, pharmaceutical companies lobbied their governments, and anyone else who would accept their bribes, to make aid money available for their overpriced drugs. Eventually aid money was provided, billions of dollars of it, and the pharmaceutical companies didn't have to reduce their prices very much at all.

Now, there is a recession. Donor money is in short supply. Countries like Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa and Kenya are barely able to keep a minority of people who need antiretroviral drugs on treatment. This situation is only going to get worse as the numbers of people needing treatment goes up and funding becomes scarcer. Developing countries need to do anything they can to help HIV positive people live a relatively healthy life. Generic drugs could go a long way to helping developing countries achieve this goal.

So why do countries like Kenya seem hell bent on frustrating the efforts of producers of generic drugs? Their efforts to prevent HIV transmission have mainly met with failure and tens of thousands of people are newly infected every year. Tens of thousands more are in need of treatment but are unable to access it because of lack of funding. What kind of incentive have these lobby groups given to the Kenyan government to pass such destructive legislation? I think that is the sort of question Kenyan citizens should be asking their local representatives.

Let big multinationals and pharmaceuticals fight their own battles and if they are worried about counterfeiters, they should lower their prices. Their products are not expensive to produce and much of the costs they claim to pay are paid for by taxpayers in various donor countries. They are not advocates for health or human rights and they should not be able to interfere in the welfare of people in developing countries. We need to be protected from what is effectively a bunch of mercenaries, wielding any weapon they can to screw profits from the poorest and most vulnerable people.

And the idea that these mercenaries are worried about countries losing tax revenue and about their citizens being duped is just bunkum. Citizens everywhere are being duped by multinationals and big pharma all the time. It's just that some people are less able to pay for the consequences. These thugs do not have the right to dictate how governments should run their country and they do not have the right to bribe or coerce them to do their bidding, either. If a legitimate government tried to do what they are doing, people may object, but it seems that multinationals can do things that governments cannot.

(This article gives plenty of examples of the duplicity of pharmaceutical companies operating in developing countries)


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