Ten years ago, on Nov. 14, 2001, the member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) gathered in Doha, Qatar, and adopted a declaration aiming to establish a balance between WTO pharmaceutical patent rules and public health. Patent-based drug monopolies and high prices keep lifesaving medicines out of the hands of millions of people who need them worldwide. WTO rules requiring developing countries to grant pharmaceutical patents have been subject to substantial criticism for favoring the multinational pharmaceutical companies. The Doha Declaration recognized countries’ rights to “promote access to medicines for all” and represented a significant victory for developing countries and global health.
Ever since, health advocates have worked to live up to Doha’s promise. Perhaps the most significant obstacle is the political and economic power of the patent-based pharmaceutical industry. This week marks the Doha Declaration’s 10th anniversary – and people everywhere who care about access to affordable medicines are fighting back.
Over the last 10 years, generic competition has reduced the price of basic HIV/AIDS treatment by 99 percent, from more than $10,000 per person per year to under $100 today. This has facilitated a global revolution in treatment access, with six million people in low and middle income countries on lifesaving medicines as a result.
Nevertheless, newer AIDS medicines are patent-protected, monopolized and vastly more expensive. The same is true of many newer medicines for non-communicable diseases, including cancer and heart disease. High prices force health agencies to make impossible choices about allocating scarce resources – and the global financial crisis has made matters worse. Patients pay the cost.
On the eve of the Doha+10 celebrations, Public Citizen and public health groups in a dozen countries launched a global campaign to challenge Abbott Laboratories’ monopolistic hold on lopinavir+ritonavir (Kaletra), a critical HIV/AIDS medicine. Campaigners say Abbott’s high prices are blocking expansion of AIDS treatment and its anti-competitive practices have likely impeded new drug innovation.
From the U.S. to Vietnam, Brazil to Indonesia, health groups are filing legal measures designed to authorize competition with Abbott’s patented product, and free up its components to make new and improved combination treatments. Country competition requests can be found here on the Kaletra campaign website.
This global challenge to one company’s hold on one drug has greater significance. The campaign aims to set a precedent: reminding national governments of the public policy tools they have to protect public health. For instance, countries have the right to issue compulsory licenses, authorizing generic competition with patented products in exchange for royalty payments to patent holders. Exercising this right can also improve countries’ bargaining power to obtain voluntary licenses on reasonable terms in order to import or manufacture affordable generic versions of patented and prohibitively expensive medicines.
The Doha Ministerial proved that if developing countries act as a block and synchronize their efforts, they can protect their public health rights.
This principle is vitally important today as free trade agreements (FTAs) under negotiation behind closed doors threaten to impose stricter patent rules at the expense of public health. The U.S. government is pressuring developing countries to trade away access to medicines in negotiations for a Trans-Pacific FTA. The U.S. proposal to the TPPA pushes for aggressive new monopoly privileges for big pharmaceutical companies and would undermine generic competition. However, if public health advocates stand together, we can inaugurate a better trans-Pacific partnership. (Click here for more information on the Trans-Pacific FTA.)
This week, we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Doha Declaration, and we join people around the world raising their voices for change.
Happy 10th anniversary from Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program to everyone for whom “Doha” is not only a city, but also a promise for a healthier and more equitable world.