Friday, January 19, 2007

First we had “Fairtrade” coffee, claiming to help farmers in poor countries. Then came “Penguin Approved” products, carbon neutral to prevent climate change. This week, scientists at Imperial College, London, gave us “ethical pharmaceuticals”, claiming they will slash drug prices and save poor countries from disease. Unfortunately, like most “ethical” products, this is more about salving Western consciences than actually helping the poor.

The premise of “ethical pharmaceuticals” is simple: access to medicines is low in poor countries because of the high prices that arise when pharmaceutical companies patent their drugs, giving them a monopoly of those drugs. The scientists claim that by slightly altering the molecular structure of an existing drug they can circumvent the company’s patent and market their “new” product at rock bottom prices,thus rescuing the poor from a whole host of diseases.

This all sounds very clever from the comfy laboratories of Imperial College but the philanthropic pharmacists are chasing a red herring. The reality is that the price of medicines is only of marginal relevance to healthcare in poor countries.

Take India. In 1972 it weakened patent laws in the belief that it would drive down the price of medicines. It worked in part, but did it make the Indian people any healthier? The answer is no. Access to even basic medicines in India remains unacceptably low. Children go without routine vaccinations. Simple off-patent anti-infectives are unavailable to the majority of the rural poor. Despite pumping out cheap generic Aids drugs for years, a paltry 12,000 of India’s five million Aids sufferers were getting the drugs at the end of last year.

For the Indian poor, the price of drugs is not the issue. The real issue is the state of their healthcare infrastructure.

The government-run system is a shambles, riddled with inefficiency and corruption and lacking resources. The transport network is so bad that rural people struggle to get to a clinic, even if there is one. Meanwhile, dirty water and cooking fuels exact a terrible toll of disease on the poor.

So, when the Indian government decided last year to strengthen its intellectual property laws in order to accelerate India’s economic development, the people saw there was no connection between arcane patent laws and the reality of their lives. What they need are hospitals, clinics, doctors and nurses. Without them, you can give drugs away for free and they still won’t get to the most needy.

Continue reading “Uganda: Helping the Rich, Harming the Poor

Source: The Monitor (Kampala) (link opens in a new window)