Oxfam Contribution to Panel on Drugs Policy
Africa Summit on HIV/AIDS, TB and Other Related Infections
April 26, 2001, Abuja, Nigeria

Mr President, your Excellencies and distinguished delegates.

Thank you for inviting Oxfam to this important meeting. This summit is a great opportunity to intensify efforts to respond to the health crisis facing Africa today.

I would like to start by congratulating the government of South Africa, on its historical victory in its effort to protect the public health of its citizens. This is a victory for all Africa and beyond -- governments, civil society, and more importantly, people living in poverty everywhere.

Oxfam is an international organization, working with others to overcome poverty and suffering. We support humanitarian relief and development programmes in over 80 countries worldwide, and over 25 African States. We work in partnership with governments, civil society and communities. It is through our long-standing close contact with local communities, that we have come to fully appreciate the heavy cost which poor households have to pay in order to access health care and basic drugs.

To share with you just one, personal, experience -- Jessica, a young African mother struggling to give her children a decent life, told us, “I share medicine between my children, because I can’t afford to buy medicine for each”. Other women tell us, “We can’t afford medicine, so we just go without”. Health workers are also concerned. A nurse working with an Oxfam partner points out that poor African women often live with painful pelvic infections because they cannot afford medicines.

Oxfam recognizes a multitude of factors that hinder poor people’s access to drugs, from inadequate R&D, to high prices, to abysmal lack of funding for global health services. We believe actions should address all these problems. We have been working with partners on many of these fronts, including advocating for adequate financing of health services via debt relief, PRSPs and increased international aid. Today, I would like to bring your attention to the new WTO Trade Related Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights (known as TRIPS). This will have a negative impact on drug prices, by extending Intellectual Property Rights to both process and product to 20 years for all countries. Oxfam believes that this “one size fits all” approach is counter to human development targets for Africa.

There is no question that TRIPS will hinder poor peoples’ access to cheap, generic equivalents. For example, take the price of fluconazole, which is 30c per capsule in Thailand, while $18 in Kenya where it is under patent. Like Thailand, some African countries are able to produce generic drugs. Egypt currently provides over 90% of its domestic drug needs through its own production. All this will undoubtedly change after full implementation of the new WTO rules. Generic production will be delayed and price monopoly will force prices out of the reach of people like Jessica. This could be a matter of life and death for some patients.

Currently, public private partnerships and price cuts have been a response to the health crisis in Africa. These partnerships play a positive role in access to treatment. However, they are limited in scope and sustainability. There is also a danger that undue reliance on companies’ goodwill could detract from the challenge of meeting what should be a basic human right. Quoting from the Universal declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has a right to share in scientific advancement and its benefit”. African governments have the duty to balance these rights of their people with the commercial rights of drug companies.

Proponents of strong patent laws argue that there are already enough safeguards in TRIPS to allow governments to respond to health needs. However, in reality, when countries try to enact legislation to implement these safeguards, and to ensure protection of public health, they are bullied by the pharmaceutical lobby and northern governments, especially the US. South Africa and Brazil are examples, but there are many more who will find it difficult to muster the resources necessary to stand up to this external pressure.

TRIPS also includes a transitional period for least developed counties and grace periods for some developing counties. Instead of being arbitrarily chosen, these dates should be tied to a country’s ability to meet internationally agreed health targets. TRIPS is meant to balance the right of society and the right of inventors, but let’s look at who currently benefits from intellectual property rights:

According to the Human Development Report 1999 --

Oxfam is not against patents per se. We recognize their value in stimulating R&D. But stronger patent rules will not generate incentive for R&D for diseases specific to Africa, such as the ones we are discussing at this summit. 90% of all R&D today goes into diseases of only 10% of the world population. Africa represents only one percent of the global drugs sales and this does not motivate drugs companies to invest in R&D in diseases of the poor. Oxfam is instead calling for the establishment of a global research fund under the auspices of WHO, to ensure R&D into neglected diseases.

In conclusion, Oxfam believes that African leaders have a unique opportunity right now to take the lead to protect the health of the people of Africa by:

Lets make sure governments and civil society work together to grasp this opportunity and put commitments into concrete actions.

Thank you.

CPT Home IP and Healthcare CPT page on Abuja Conference CPT Africa page CPT AIDS page