Letter to the Editor of the Financial Times
Phil Bloomer and Bernard Pecoul

August 30, 2001


Your editorial "Patent nonsense" (August 24) says it would be "a bad precedent" for Brazil to "set aside" Roche's patent. We disagree. This is an important precedent that will bring a myopic industry to its senses.

A patent is a contract between public and private interests. When a patent monopoly is against the public interest, governments have the right to free themselves from that monopoly. This is an inherent and necessary component of any patent system and is recognised by the World Trade Organisation, which allows for measures such as compulsory licensing. The US issues compulsory licences all the time on technologies such as tow-truck parts, computer technologies and gene rights.

Roche's anti-Aids drug was consuming more than a quarter of Brazil's spending on Aids treatment. This was an unacceptable level of expenditure for Brazil, which negotiated with Roche for six months for a price cut, without success.

Countries should follow Brazil's example and be able to turn to measures to resolve market failure by allowing generic competition. This is precisely what a united bloc of developing countries has proposed at the WTO's trade related intellectual property rights council. The European Union supports them, leaving the US isolated in opposition. Concerns that cheap generic drugs may leak back into rich countries are old hat. Some companies already sell some medicines and vaccines at low prices and are having no difficulty with leakage. Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner, has offered a regulatory firewall to ensure that they do not get into the EU.

Patents can be a crucial incentive for drug research and development. The pharmaceuticals industry is one of the most profitable in the world and has produced vital new cures. But if vast numbers of poor people are excluded from the benefits of these innovations, and die as a consequence, patent monopolies are unacceptable.

Brazil's move does not threaten hopes of finding new drugs and vaccines. Where Aids medicines are unaffordable, profits are non-existent. Seeking alternative sources of these medicines will have little impact on the profitability and research activities of the pharmaceuticals industry. The global patent system will avoid attack if countries are allowed to exercise their legal rights within a system that ensures that the resultant benefits are shared with those most in need.

Phil Bloomer,
Director, Cut the Cost Campaign, Oxfam

Dr Bernard Pecoul,
Director, Access to Medicines Campaign, Medecins Sans Frontieres

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