Support action on access to medicines in the Third World

9 January 2007

Support action on access to medicines in the Third World

The Dutch government must support countries which produce cheaper versions of patented medicines. So say SP Members of Parliament Agnes Kant and Ewout Irrgang, who want the pharmaceutical concern Novartis to withdraw a legal challenge to India's legislation on patents. In addition Ms Kant, the SP's spokeswoman on health issues, and Mr Irrgang, development spokesman, want the US government to end its interference with Thailand's production of cheap generic medicines. The two are asking government ministers Hans Hoogervorst and Gijs Van Aardenne to take action. If Novartis and the US government succeed, millions of people in the Third World will be deprived of affordable generic medicines.

Under the terms of the World Trade Organisation's TRIPS agreement, all developing countries are obliged to introduce strict patent protection along the lines of that found in the West. The aim of this, patent protection, should surely be weighed in the balance alongside other rights, such as access to health care. For this reason, a certain amount of leeway is built into TRIPS. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that this room for manoeuvre must be included in national legislation. One of the problems is that pharmaceutical corporations, with the support on occasion of the US government, are thwarting such initiatives. It is in this context that Novartis has taken legal action against India's legislation governing patents on medicines.

Generic medicines

Generic medicines are copies of branded medicines which, once the patent period for the original brand has expired, can be produced by other companies. The biggest advantage of this is that they are cheaper, because the producer of the generic medicine did not have to cover the research and development costs of the original product.


India is the biggest producer of cheap generic medicines. Since 2005 the country has been obliged to keep to the terms of the TRIPS agreement, and has included in its legislation guarantees in keeping with this treaty. Novartis has now begun legal proceedings, a move which follows the refusal by the Indian authorities in January, 2006, of a patent on a leukaemia drug on the grounds that it was only a slight improvement on existing treatments. Novartis is challenging not only this decision, but the whole of the Indian patent law, putting production of generic medicines for Third World countries in jeopardy.

The international health care NGO Médecins Sans Frontières has begun a world-wide campaign against this action. Two SP Members of Parliament, Agnes Kant and Ewout Irrgang, are asking the Dutch government to support the campaign, at the same time calling on Novartis to withdraw its case.


Thailand also makes use of the leeway granted by TRIPS, allowing a national pharmaceutical organisation to produce a generic version of the anti-HIV drug Efavirenz. The American government has joined pharmaceutical corporation Merck and other firms in insisting that Thailand should have first asked Merck's permission. Kant and Irrgang are asking ministers to speak to their American counterparts on the issue and to ask them to put a stop to this harassment. The rights of the world's poor to access to necessary medicines must be protected.

Internet Petition from Médecins Sans Frontières

Médecins Sans Frontières has established an Internet petition urging Novartis to drop the case against the Indian government. Agnes Kant and Ewout Irrgang ask everyone to sign. Patients before patents!

Sign the petition

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