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Monday, 12 February, 2001, 15:49 GMT
Head to Head: Access to patented drugs
The international aid organisation Oxfam says global drugs companies are restricting access to essential medicines in the world's poorest countries.

But the pharmaceutical companies counter that some countries are engaging in piracy by producing cheaper, inferior drugs.

Here, Oxfam's policy adviser Sophia Tickell responds to comments made by Sir Richard Sykes, non-executive chairman of GlaxoSmithKline, when he spoke to the BBC on Monday.

Sir Richard Sykes, GlaxoSmithKline

The issue is about intellectual property. The South Africans, for example, have signed up to something called TRIPS, which is about protecting intellectual property. Other countries have not.

GlaxoSmithKline have drugs that we have spent a lot of money on, in research and development.

Companies that make generic copies are pirates on the high seas, who can just take our drugs and say: "Here you are. We have no investment in research and development, we can just make them - and by the way, the standards and quality might be a bit 'iffy' but there they are."

Why should that happen? We don't believe in piracy - we tried to stamp it out in the 17th and 18th Century. Why do we suddenly believe that we should allow piracy to take place, when we are offering these drugs to people at cost, which is better than the generic companies can do - or we even give them away.

Intellectual property protection

This is nothing more than political rhetoric, to point the finger somewhere else from where it should be.

If you want evidence, go to India. In India, there is no intellectual property protection on any molecules because they do not have intellectual property protection.

So Indian pharmaceutical companies make all the Aids drugs that we make, or any other company makes. Aids is an enormous problem in India.

Yet people aren't being treated - why? India has plenty of generic copiers that can make these drugs at will. We don't stop them - we have no interest because there is no law in India.

So why aren't these generic companies producing cheap drugs so that the people in India can start being treated?

There is absolutely no evidence that any of this is happening, because that is not the problem.

Industry will deteriorate

The problem is that these generic houses are exporting their products to countries where intellectual property is not protected - like Latin America for example.

If we go down that route, then we will see if South Africa, which is a signatory to TRIPS, starts saying that they too will allow generic compounds to come into the country, and then they will flood back all over the world - and this industry will start to deteriorate very rapidly.

This is a very important industry, not just for healthcare. It is a very important industry in this country in terms of balance of payments.

It will destroy our industry if nobody cares about all the research and development we do here.

Generic houses will forget about all that, and we as a country will suffer very significantly.

Sophia Tickell, Oxfam

Generic medicines are a lifeline to millions of people in the developing world.

The issue of price is critical for poor people in developing countries, 80% of whom pay for medicines out of their own pockets.

The slightest increase in price can force people to make unacceptable sacrifices - such as going without food, or selling assets - in order to cover the costs of treating illness.

Cheap generics

Cheap copies of expensive drugs are the only option for poor people. For example in India, the vast majority of medicines used for treatment of malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia are generic.

The UK companies, like other global pharmaceutical companies, makes their money from sales in industrialised countries.

The global pharmaceutical market recoups its R&D costs in developed countries. The availability of cheap generics in developing countries will not change this.

Mutinational drug companies must realise that people come before profits.

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12 Feb 01 | Health
Drugs firms 'waging war' on poor
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