Monday, June 28, 2010

Big Pharma Must Think We Are Idiots

A former British politician called Lynda Chalker who interferes with intellectual property (IP) issues in East Africa, says she is sure that East African IP legislation will not confuse generic and counterfeit drugs on the one hand and fake drugs on the other. But Kenya's Constitutional Court has already ruled that its own Anti-Counterfeit Act, only two years old, does confuse the three phenomena. And the court admits that this could result in people presently receiving affordable antiretroviral (ARV) therapy for HIV being denied the drugs the future. Chalker describes Kenya's decision as a 'drawback' to anti-counterfeiting efforts.

But Chalker herself simply makes the same confusion. She says that 'an anti-counterfeit law is essential in Uganda and east Africa as a whole; one only has to look at the number of deaths arising from counterfeit pharmaceutical products, electronic goods and auto spare parts'. If a drug or produce is causing death or injury, that is a health and safety problem. Branded goods can cause death and injury. Putting a brand name on a product illegally doesn't make it harmful, nor does doing so legally make it safe. The harm comes when the goods are substandard or when drugs are fake, not real drugs at all.

The distinction seems basic enough, but Chalker and the people who put together the original Kenyan bill appear unable to comprehend it. Worse still, Uganda and several other countries seem keen to follow Kenya's lead, despite the Kenyan's change of mind. Chalker and others who follow this tendency to conflate counterfeits, generics and fakes then go on to deny that their stance could jeopardize availability of affordable generic drugs, such as ARVs. But their denial sounds hollow when they go to so much trouble to confuse generics with counterfeits and fakes.

Someone who has been taken in by this deception pontificates about 'fake' drugs (and doctors) in Uganda in another article. Eleven Ugandan 'legislators' are querying the quality of drugs from India, which is the source of most of Uganda's affordable generic drugs. They note that the price of the same drugs from the UK is higher and wonder why. Perhaps that's a question for Chalker. But usually a huge difference in the price of drugs indicates that the expensive ones are branded versions and the cheap ones are generic versions.

Of course, there may also be counterfeit drugs and fake drugs in circulation. When drugs are priced so that no one in developing countries can afford them, in the hope that aid money will be used to purchase them, it's not surprising that some people will try to cash in on the market for cheap drugs. If the pharmaceutical industry is concerned about the fact that it is quite easy to make a good profit from counterfeit and fake drugs, they need to sort out their own pricing policies, perhaps by taking a look at what the 'market' can tolerate. Otherwise they might be accused of depending on subsidies and of rigging the market, which would be quite intolerable.

Chalker expresses her concern at the 'extra burden counterfeiting places on health services in developing countries'. If she is worried about health services being burdened, it is branded goods she should target. If she thinks that health services will be unable to afford the growing need for ARVs, she needs to champion the cause of those producing affordable generic versions of the grossly overpriced branded drugs that her friends in the pharmaceutical industry produce.

Chalker says that IP laws should be 'well-drafted', which, presumably, all laws should. But well-drafted for whom? Intellectual property is for the benefit of industries like big pharma, not for the benefit of poor people who are sick and dying. IP laws are not, as Chalker seems to think, to protect people from harm, and I don't think anyone who knows about IP would claim something so stupid. That's why human rights activists had to fight for international law to protect people from IP laws and allow poor countries access to affordable generics. I don't believe Chalker is stupid, though. She just thinks that everyone else is.


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