Blair sides with drug giants

Sarah Boseley, health editor
Saturday March 31, 2001
The Guardian,7369,466179,00.html

The UK has aligned itself firmly on the side of the pharmaceutical industry in the battle over cheap drugs for developing countries, declaring that patents on medicines must be upheld even in poor countries where millions are dying of diseases such as tuberculosis and Aids.

The government's position is set out in a new report explicitly endorsed by Tony Blair and written by ministers, including the health minister Lord Hunt and science minister Lord Sainsbury, together with the heads of the major drug companies in the UK, including GlaxoSmithKline and Merck. It states categorically: "Intellectual property rights [patents] are the lifeblood of the innovative pharmaceutical industry."

The government and industry say they are "acutely aware of the growing HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa and their responsibilities in responding to it". The report goes on: "There is much that can be done to reduce the impact of Aids and to improve access to medicines. However, intellectual property protection is not per se a barrier to access to medicines and attempts to weaken it would be counter-productive."

The government's uncompromising stance is out of line with the growing mood of concern in other European countries about the unaffordable cost of medicines in poor countries where Aids, tuberculosis and malaria are killing millions. The inequities have been highlighted by a court case brought by 39 drug companies to stop legislation that would allow the South African government to import medicines that are cheaper elsewhere. Two weeks ago, the European parliament called on the drug companies to drop their legal action.

"It does look as if the government is capitulating to big business," said Sophia Tickell, senior policy adviser at Oxfam which is campaigning for access to cheap medicines. "It is very difficult to see any other interpretation. It seems a backward step and out of line with a growing number of other governments."

The report has been published just as Merck, one of the companies involved in the South African case, has threatened legal action against Brazil. Brazil is hailed as a blueprint for the developing world for managing to treat a significant proportion of its HIV-positive population by passing controversial laws to allow it to manufacture cheap copies of eight of the patented drugs used to keep the virus at bay. Since 1997, when it began to make its own versions, hospital admissions for Aids-related illnesses have dropped by 80% and deaths by a half. Brazil has brought the cost of treating patients down from $7,858 a year in 1997 to $4,137. In the US, treatment costs between $10,000 and $15,000.

Merck is now trying to ban Brazil's state-owned pharmaceutical company from importing Efavirenz, an Indian generic version of its drug Stocrin, with a view to making its own copy. A tenth of Brazil's Aids budget is spent on the drug, which is only available at high western prices. Brazil has said it will not make the drug if Merck drops its price significantly.

While United Nations agencies and charities have welcomed the lowering of medicine prices in the developing world which has come about as a result of the recent fierce generic competition and grassroots campaigns in countries such as South Africa, the UK government is now publicly backing the position of the pharmaceutical giants.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry said the government shared its position on patents. "It [the government] recognises the importance of intellectual property rights in the development of new medicines," a spokesman said.

The report is the product of a joint industry/government taskforce set up a year ago after drug companies warned they might take their business elsewhere if the UK clamped down on the price at which they sell medicines to the NHS. It makes clear that the government recognises the threat and wants to do all it can to persuade the industry, which is hugely profitable for Britain, to stay here.

"The UK must continue to offer a supportive and competitive business environment compared to other viable locations," the document says.

The prime minister, in a foreword, says: "I am committed to ensuring that the UK retains the features that have made it an attractive location for investment - features such as the availability of a high quality scientific workforce, protection of intellectual property, a supportive regulatory framework and an environment conducive to the research needed to discover the cures of the 21st century."

• The report can be accessed at