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Pharma supporters ensure new drugs for cancer are not on the UN agenda

The EU and USA lobbied hard to prevent any mention in the UN declaration on non-communicable diseases of legal loopholes to allow poor countries to obtain new drugs for cancer, heart and lung diseases and diabetes on the cheap

We are hearing much about the prevention of the “lifestyle” (or non-communicable) diseases at the UN summit in New York, which is clearly a very good thing, but little about treatment for cancer, heart and lung disease and diabetes. Curiously, it was the other way round at the first UN high-level meeting on a health issue in 2001, when millions of people were dying from Aids.

But in these austere economic times – and indeed they are austere, as yesterday’s report into the gloomy prospects for the Global Fund pointed out – prevention looks by far the issue most likely to attract funding and consensus. There is also a stigma attached to overweight people who fall prey to heart disease and diabetes – though no worse than the one that people who contracted HIV had to deal with. There are also some cheap – because out of patent – generic drugs for conditions such as heart disease and asthma that everybody will agree should be available in the developing world.

So treatment is low down the agenda and it would appear that some donor governments are keen to keep it there. During the negotiations over the draft declaration that has now been signed by world leaders, the European Union and the United States were very anxious to keep out any mention of the words “Doha” and “TRIPS”. For those who haven’t followed the complex and hard-fought battles over access to HIV medicines, the issue here concerns drug patents.

After a long struggle and amid enormous public hostility to the pharmaceutical industry over its apparent foot-dragging in relation to access to (expensive, in-patent) Aids drugs for the poor in Africa and Asia, an historic agreement was made which is generally referred to as the Doha Declaration of the TRIPS legislation (trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights). This is where the World Health Organisation describes it.

The pharmaceutical industry and its supporters in the EU and US where research and manufacturing takes place are very keen that nobody should get the idea that a declaration which allowed poor countries to bypass patents and obtain cheap copies of normally expensive Aids drugs should in any way be mentioned in the context of NCDs. That might open the doors to developing nations using the legislation to obtain new cancer and heart drugs – which make huge profits for the companies in the rich world.

During the negotiations, the EU and USA specifically argued for any mention of Doha or TRIPS to be removed from the draft declaration – and they won.

But as these diseases become more and more of a burden on developing countries, that position may become harder to argue. Campaigners on the case include Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) and Health Action International (HAI). This is the latter:

HAI’s position regarding the Doha Declaration and TRIPS flexibilities remains consistent in that they are regarded as just as relevant for unmet medical need for NCDS as they are for communicable diseases. It is crucial that TRIPS flexibilities are used to provide access to life saving and otherwise unaffordable medicines that remain under patent.

Interestingly, some of the Aids activist groups that campaigned for HIV drugs at low cost for the poor now see this as an issue they should support. Keeping the words out of the UN declaration can only be temporary relief for pharma. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds