A bitter dose

Multinational drug firms gang up against a company that wants to produce cheaper generics

Published: Sunday 15 April 2001

cipla Limited of Mumbai has invited the wrath of multinationals companies (mncs) for offering to sell aids drugs at a cheap prices. The company proposes to sell the medicines to non-government organisations and doctors who would then distribute it in South Africa, where aids cases are high. The lowest price offered by the multinationals is around us $1,000 per aids patient per year, but Cipla is giving them at us $350.

But, their willingness to provide cheap medicines has got the company embroiled in the issues of intellectual property rights. Firms like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Glaxo SmithKline and Boehringer Ingelheim hold the license medicines such as stavudine, lamivudine and nevirapine.

The mnc's say that the high prices are justified considering the money spent on the research. However, Andrew Chetley, programme director, Healthlink Worldwide, London, points out that very little money is actually spent for finding new drugs and public health research is heavily subsidised by government funds.

The mnc's hold exclusive rights for the sale of the patented medicines in South Africa. However, in case of a national emergency, the government can ask the patent holder to provide the license to manufacturers generic drugs. According to the law, the health minister has the right to buy medicines from the cheaper source to protect the health of its population even if it means amending the Patents Act. The mncs do not want a clause like this to be invoked.

To get the clause removed, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (pma) has filed a case against the South African government. According to pma , the Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act violates wto and discriminates against the industry.

Though the act is not specifically about anti- hiv drugs, focus on this was brought when the courts decided to let Treatment Action Campaign, an aids activist group, to join the hearings. Interest has also been generated due to Cipla's move to sell cheap generic drugs. The first hearing of the case came to nothing when Judge Bernard Ngoepe said that the case was outside his jurisdiction and postponed the hearing to April 18. Meanwhile, who has supported the African government.

According to Harvey Bale, the director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, the price is not the actual issue as the companies had offered to reduce their prices earlier. On the other hand, the government feels that pma is abusing intellectual property rights for profits. "The rich governments are using economic powers, diplomatic influence and political blackmail to stop developing countries from making inexpensive copies of patented aids drugs," says I S Gilada, a Mumbai-based aids consultant.

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