Trading with lives

Medicines should benefit sick people, not pharmaceutical companies

The last 50 years have seen incredible progress in the development of medicines. The drugs people have created can eradicate entire diseases, prevent debilitating illnesses, save lives and enhance wellbeing.

But when it comes to justice we are failing; not everyone who needs them has access to these life changing drugs. It often is poverty that causes preventable illness such as diarrhoea, and it is poverty again that prevents people from being able to pay for vital medicines.

Health Poverty Action campaigns for access to medicines because it is unacceptable that even though we have the technology to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths and to improve the lives of millions more, people who desperately need medicines are denied them.

This happens because pharmaceutical companies operate within economic and legal systems in which it is more rewarding to serve shareholders than it is to save lives.

We believe everyone deserves the right to access the medicines they need to keep them alive and healthy, because everyone has the right to the best chance at good health.

What stops people in need of medicines from accessing them?

The prioritisation of profits over people and intellectual property law

Pharmaceutical companies use patents to protect their drugs from competition, usually for twenty years. These give them the exclusive right to produce a certain protected chemical combination, creating a monopoly that allows companies to set the price very high.

When antiretroviral drugs for the treatment of HIV and AIDS were under patent, for example, they cost around US$10,000 per patient per year. Once the drugs were no longer under patent, competition from generic or non-branded medicines pushed the price down and they cost as little as US$87 per patient per year. During the years that these drugs were sold at monopoly prices, millions of people needlessly suffered and died.

While companies need to make a reasonable return on investments in order to fund the research and development (R&D) of new drugs, the current intellectual property-based system allows them to make hugely excessive  profits from the high pricing of medicines.

Find out more about intellectual property rights.

How do poor people afford medicines?

Low cost ‘generic’ medicines

Once a drug is no longer under patent other companies are allowed to produce the drug as long as it has been deemed safe and efficacious by the national drug registration authority.

These non-branded or ‘generic’ versions of medicines contain the same active ingredient as branded medicines and they have to go through the same quality control requirements demanded of the original product.

However, generics’ manufacturers do not face the high cost of clinical trials because they mostly use the clinical trial data initially submitted by the originator company to demonstrate safety, effectiveness and efficaciousness of the medicine in question. In any case, competition can then force the price down.

India: Pharmacy of the poor

The situation for people in low-income countries who need medicines is dire now, but it could get a lot worse.

At the moment India produces the vast majority of quality generic medicines used in developing countries. These low cost medicines are vital for treating diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria, cancer, and heart disease.

But for a several years India’s ability to produce these life-saving medicines has been under threat from pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis and bilateral free trade agreements such as the one currently being negotiated with the European Union.

Find out how India is able to provide these life saving drugs and why it is under threat.

Towards solutions

A Solution for HIV drugs: A Patent Pool

An innovative solution to the lack of access to medicines has been proposed and is close to being realised for HIV and AIDS drugs. Patent Pools are a way of allowing poor countries access to low cost drugs. The owners of patents put them into a central pool so that other companies or researchers can access the information on the drugs under patent and produce either generic versions or new combination therapies. The original owner receives a fair licence payment for providing the information.

This model will ensure people have access to the medicines they need to live healthy lives, and allows for pharmaceutical companies to make a fair return on their investment.

Health Poverty Action supports the Patent Pool for HIV and AIDS drugs. The solution is within our grasp and could make a huge difference to the lives of millions of HIV-positive people, but certain pharmaceutical companies are blocking it. One of these is UK household name Johnson & Johnson, a company which likes to portray itself as caring for children.

Find out more about the HIV medicine patent pool and why Johnson and Johnson are refusing to join.