Bush accused of pressuring countries to stop producing generic drugs
24 July 2004 | BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal)
by Fiona Fleck
Geneva — The United States has come under fire for pressuring developing countries to give up their right to produce cheap, generic anti-AIDS medicines in return for bilateral trade agreements that strengthen protection of costlier, brand name drugs.
Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz joined advocacy groups Oxfam and M?decins Sans Fronti?res this month in criticising Washington for bowing to industry pressure by pursuing a policy the groups say could prevent millions of AIDS patients in poor countries from getting the lifesaving antiretroviral drugs and treatment they need.
US officials denied their trade policy was hampering the fight against AIDS, citing international trade rules that allow flexibility when poor countries face a health crisis.
Of an estimated 38 million people infected with HIV globally, less than 10% have access to antiretroviral drugs, and many of those are in wealthy, developed countries.
In a report released at an international AIDS conference in Bangkok this month, Oxfam called on Thailand?which is negotiating a free trade agreement or bilateral trade pact with Washington?not to give in to US demands to toughen existing intellectual property or patent protection for brand name drugs.
Pharmaceutical companies say patent protection (which keeps prices of medicines high for a number of years) is vital to finance research and develop new medicines.
The Oxfam report warned that such concessions could jeopardise Thailand’s thriving generic drug industry, which produces copies of costlier patented drugs and is vital in the fight against AIDS in a country with 1.5% prevalence for people aged 15-49.
Writing in the New York Times on 10 July, Professor Stiglitz said President George W Bush’s policy was “puzzling and hypocritical” because only last year he had pledged $15bn (?8bn; 12bn) to help countries in Africa and the Caribbean affected by AIDS. “While he talks about a global campaign against AIDS and has offered substantial sums to back it up, what he is giving with one hand is being taken away with the other,” Professor Stiglitz wrote.
Access to lifesaving medicines has been a sticking point in trade agreements between the United States and countries such as Brazil, which also has a generic drugs industry and is the only developing country with free universal AIDS treatment.