Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Stealing medicines

This article on the Counter Punch website by Fran Quigley, a professor at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, where he directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic is worth extensively quoting from:

“Along the path toward the creation of a global capitalist system, some of the most significant steps were taken by the English enclosure movement.
Between the 15th to 19th centuries, the rich and the powerful fenced off commonly held land and transformed it into private property. Land switched from a source of subsistence to a source of profit, and small farmers were relegated to wage laborers. In Das Kapital, Marx described the process by coining the term land-grabbing. To British historian E.P. Thompson, it was “a plain enough case of class robbery.”
More recently, a similar enclosure movement has taken place. This time, the fenced-off commodity is life-saving medicine. Playing the role of modern-day lords of the manor are pharmaceutical corporations, which have taken a good that was once considered off-limits for private profiteering and turned it into an expensive commodity. Instead of displacing small landholders, this enclosure movement causes suffering and death: Billions of people across the globe go without essential medicines, and 10 million die each year as a result.
Many people curse the for-profit medicine industry. But few know that the enclosure erected around affordable medicines is both relatively new and artificially imposed. For nearly all of human history, attempting to corner the markets on affordable medicines has been considered both immoral and illegal.
It’s time now to reclaim this commons, and reestablish medicines as a public good…

….As the English enclosure movement proved, exclusivity can be artificially created by literally or figuratively walling off common access. Exclusivity can be undone as well: The modern open-source software movement takes a good that some have tried to make exclusive — software code — and freely shares it, leading to a plethora of creative developments….

….“Letters patent,” meaning open letters, were issued in 14th century England to induce foreign craftsmen to relocate there. Attempts to coordinate global intellectual property rules led to the 1883 Paris Convention and the 1886 Berne Convention, and eventually to the creation of the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization in 1967. But nations who signed on to those agreements retained the ability to determine the length of patents and what products would be covered. For many nations, that flexibility meant excluding medicines from patent protection. For example, Germany’s patent law of 1877 labeled medicines as “essential goods,” along with food and chemicals, and prohibited any attempts to patent them.
 In the middle of the 20th century, several post-colonial nations adopted similar laws. India’s patent law extended only to the processes for creating medicines, not the drugs themselves. The law opened the door for Indian pharmaceutical manufacturers to reverse-engineer patented drugs and then devise different, cheaper production methods. India soon became known as “the pharmacy of the developing world.” Brazil, Mexico, and other Central and South American countries also adopted limits on the patentability of medicines.
European countries like Italy and Sweden didn’t grant pharmaceutical patents until the 1970s, and Spain refused to do so until 1992. Even when medicine patents were given, many nations granted liberal access to compulsory licenses for patented drugs, meaning that generic manufacturers were free to make the drugs and pay a royalty to the patent holders. During the period between 1962 and 1992, Canada granted 613 licenses to import or manufacture pharmaceutical products….

….The enclosed medicine system inflicts additional damage beyond the artificially inflated cost of patented medicines. The resources of for-profit corporations are inevitably concentrated on the development and promotion of medicines that can be sold at a high mark-up to wealthy consumers. “Lifestyle” drugs that address male pattern baldness or sexual performance are exhaustively researched and marketed, yet the past half-century has seen just one drug developed to treat tuberculosis, which kills more than a million people each year. A landmark study published by the British medical journal The Lancet showed that of the 1,556 new chemical entities marketed between 1975 and 2004, only 21 were for tropical diseases….Remarkably, a full 70 percent of the medicine brought to market by the industry in the past 20 years provided no therapeutic benefit over the products already available. Instead, these “me too” drugs were put forward in order to grab a share of an existing lucrative market.