Science in Society Archive

TRIPS Abandons the Dying

TRIPS ensures a one way flow of revenue, from poor to rich. The Pharmaceutical industry played a major role in drafting it, and is now fiercely defending it. Angela Ryan and Nick Papadimitriou Report.

Newly elected US President Bush, a republican, has strong connections with the pharmaceutical industry. The industry spent nearly 70% of their $24.4 million campaign budget on his presidential election. The lobby wielding the most power is the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA). Their combined worth is twice the total GDP of all Sub Saharan Africa and they are now bringing their wealth to bear directly on the struggle between western patent rights and the rest of the world's need for affordable medicines [1].

Clinton, Al Core's democrat predecessor, resisted the industry lobby and was advocating release of generic AIDs drugs to people in the third world. Bush intends to reverse this initiative [2].

A leading Indian drug company, Cipla, has taken on British giant GlaxoSmithKline by refusing to honour their patents, making cut-price versions of anti-AIDs drugs. Cipla is offering the three-drug anti-AIDs cocktail of stavudrine, camivudine and nevirapine for just $600 or £430 per patient per annum. And they are selling it for an even cheaper price of $350 to Medecins Sans Frontieres, the volunteer doctors who have set up AIDs clinics in Africa, where the AIDs crisis is mounting. GlaxoSmithKline is threatening legal action [3]. Two of the key drugs in the triple therapy for AIDs were invented by the US National Institutes for Health, paid for out of the public purse.

Across Africa and the developing world, millions of people are dying of diseases that are treatable in the west, such as diarrhoea, meningitis, malaria, TB as well as AIDs. Under the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights or TRIPS agreement of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), signatory states can pass clauses, as South Africa and Brazil have done, to by pass patents and make or buy cheaper drugs in cases of dire emergency. The poorest countries have until 2006 to comply with TRIPS by passing their own patent laws.

This month, 42 pharmaceutical companies including GlaxoSmithKline have brought a lawsuit, case No 4183/98, in the South African high court against the South African Government in an attempt to block the import of cheap medicines. The case has taken three years to prepare and employ virtually every patent lawyer in South Africa. On 5th March they will try to stop the South African government from buying generic medicines from countries like India, Brazil and Thailand, where drug patents are ignored on grounds of dire need.

The pharmaceutical companies claim that section 15c of the South African Medicines Act 1997 was not properly drafted in line with TRIPs. They say it gives the South African government too broad a power to buy in cheap drugs from abroad, when the situation is 'not strictly an emergency'. Few can argue AIDs is less than that in South Africa where 2.5 million people die every year from aids related illnesses.

Last month, Bush's new admin-istration mounted the first challenge in WTO, claiming Brazil is in breach of TRIPS. The offensive against Brazil and South Africa marks a determination by drugs companies to uphold patent rights and maximize profits. The Pharmaceutical industry is the most profitable industry in the US, its profits soared by 36% recently. Additionally, only 10% of research and development go on drugs that account for 90% of global diseases, the bulk being spent on first world afflictions such as obesity and chemical dependency.

The WTO is a law unto itself, where multinationals are writing the rules. The US gold rush to patent drugs and life is a strategy to scare off competition and stake out the market. It leaves developing countries further disadvantaged. During 1997, only 31 out of 26,000 patent application filed in Africa came from resident Africans [4].


  1. "Industry that Stalks the US corridors of power", by Julian Borger, The Guardian, Tuesday 13th Feb. 2001.
  2. "A lot of very greedy people", by John le Carr, The Guardian, 12th Feb 2001.
  3. "Crusading Indian firm takes on might of GlaxoSmithkline", by Luke Harding in New Delhi and Sarah Bosely, The Guardian Wed 14th 2001.
  4. "The profits that Kill", by Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian, Monday Feb 12th 2001.

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