Desmond Tutu backs campaign to stop drug companies profiting from the poor

By staff writers
February 16, 2007

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of South Africa has urged the drug company, Novartis, to stop its court action against patent laws in India, which he says will harm the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

"People, not profits, must be at the centre of patent law for medicines," Archbishop Tutu declared as he joined forces with South African church and health care workers in condemning the legal action. Catholic and Lutheran church leaders are among other faith groups to pledge to the cause, alongside civil society activists.

Over 300,000 people worldwide have signed a petition on the issue – including, former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis, and Dr Michel Kazatchkine, the new head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The Berne Declaration, Oxfam International and the global medical humanitarian organization M?©decins Sans Fronti?®res (MSF) are among the major agencies involved in the campaign.

Novartis is challenging the refusal of a patent for the cancer drug, Gleevec, manufactured in India, on the grounds that it is a new form of an old medicine, reports

Health analysts say that this outcome would signal the start of more stringent patent laws in India and an end to the low price trend seen up until now.

Treatment Action Campaign spokesperson Nathan Geffen says that the outcome for vulnerable people in poor communities, especially, could be "devastating" - a claim backed by Archbishop Tutu and others in the churches.

Declared Geffen: "The low cost of generic drugs in India pressurises patent holders to make their prices more reasonable."

"In Khayelitsha 17.4 per cent of people on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for five years have had to switch to second-line regimen, which costs the government over five times more than the first-line combination," explained Doctors Without Borders South Africa head Eric Goemaere.

He continued: "The only reason for this price difference is that most second-line drugs are still only available from originator companies holding patents. If Novartis succeeds in India, we won't have alternatives to brand drugs coming from India and drug prices (will) inevitably go up."

Mr Geffen said that the court action would not only effect ARV's, but most medications - including those for diabetes and tuberculosis. Doctors Without Borders added that Indian courts have heard arguments regarding the constitutionality of the legislation Novartis is challenging.

Novartis and 38 other pharmaceutical companies took the South African government to court in 2001 after it tried to pass legislation allowing more flexibility in the access to cheaper medicines. It abandoned its court action amid widespread civil society protests - something Doctors Without Borders hopes will happen this time too.

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