The World Health Organization said on Saturday it would examine whether the international drug patent system prevents developing countries from obtaining needed medicines, vaccines and diagnostic tests.
The WHO said the group would integrate the findings of an April report by former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, which criticized the existing drug development, marketing and pricing system, saying it largely neglected the poor.
The report, commissioned by the WHO in 2003, did not call for a weakening of patent rights but urged big companies to reduce the price of medicines sold to developing countries and to avoid filing for patent protection there.
[Reuters Health, 27 May 2006]
Early last month I wrote a post about how the high prices of medicines can "kill" sick patients. Much of the reason for high drug prices stems from the profit-oriented and patent-based global system for new drug development, marketing and pricing. Since the people behind this system operate only based on business methods and how to upset competition, the fate and welfare of poor sick people are largely neglected. Not all sick people have spare money to spend on medicines. More often than not, they would prefer buying food than medicine. And so, you know what happens next. They die even when they're not supposed to.
Big Pharma will tell you and me that the patent system for new drugs is necessary to encourage and finance the invention of newer drugs. But that works only in developed countries. Certainly not in developing countries. The April report released to WHO has clearly suggested that "drug companies should not seek patents in poor countries." What strikes me as absurd is that WHO will still examine to validate if the report is true.
Last week, for example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended approval of the first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, the leading cause of death from cancer among women in poor countries, which harbor 80 percent of the world's cases. In the developed world, routine tests usually detect the disease in its treatable, precancerous stages. With that announcement, Merck, the manufacturer, announced the price: $500 for the series of three shots --- making it unaffordable where it is needed most.
[IHT, 21 May 2006]
This issue has been languishing for almost a decade now, and WHO should have joined in the clamor to resolve this problem a long time ago. In my opinion, preventing people from dying is an emergency. It is not merely an issue or policy which you can debate on and on for years before coming up with a firm decision.