Published in The Daily Star on Monday, 20 February 2017
Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, a professor at The New School in New York, talks to The Daily Star
Bangladesh should carry out studies in advance to assess the likely impact of the end of waiver on making patented drugs once the country graduates from least-developed country bracket, said an expert.
Due to being an LDC, the country does not have to comply with the World Trade Organisation’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement until 2033.
“If Bangladesh comes out of the LDC category, the government will have to revise its patent law and if you make your patents stronger, medicine prices will increase,” said Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, a professor of international affairs at The New School in New York.
She went on to cite India as an example, where the pharmaceutical prices shot up once the country graduated from the LDC bracket and patent law needed to be revised.
Fukuda-Parr’s comments came in an interview with The Daily Star on the sidelines of the third CPD anniversary lecture, an event she attended in Dhaka last week.
“When revising the patent law, you will have to make sure that you do not inadvertently make it more stringent than it needs to be,” she said, adding that some countries have inadvertently put conditions that are unnecessarily strong.
Patent law should be changed in a way that monopoly does not last for too long, said Fukuda-Parr, also the vice-chair of the UN Committee on Development Policy.
She warned the government about singing any new bilateral or regional trade deals as they can include intellectual patent rights provisions that are tougher than that of the TRIPS agreement.
“Most people think that trade agreements do not have anything to do with health. So, trade ministers negotiate trade agreements on the basis of what will happen to import and exports and whether there will be some advantages in terms of market access.”
But trade deals have consequences on medicine prices, access to medicine and on healthcare, said Fukuda-Parr, who previously worked for the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme.
The inclusion of tougher provisions than TRIPS in free trade deals also makes it difficult for governments to control the prices of imported medicines.
Data exclusivity may also make it difficult or expensive for local companies to make even generic medicines.
When a patent expires, companies that want to register the generic version will have to conduct clinical trails all over again; it will not be able to use the results obtained by the original patent holder.
This makes it more difficult, costlier and lengthier for generic companies to come in.
“This is why trade agreements have important consequences for the medicines market in a country. That is why globally there are many discussions about the problems that occur with medicine market arising from these trade agreements.”
The medicine market has been expanding, but the price escalation is a big problem. As a result, people who need medicines cannot have access to it because it is too expensive.
And the rising prices affect people irrespective of income groups, irrespective of rich or poor countries.
“Before, we used to say that poor people cannot have access to medicines, poor countries do not have access to medicines. Today, a new problem is emerging — that the medicines are so expensive that rich people in rich countries do not have access to medicines either.” For example, cancer drugs in the US mostly cost $100,000 a year per patient, which is much higher than the income of a middle-class person. It is the same with Hepatitis C drugs that cost $84,000 a year, with each pill coming to $1,000.
Global trade, because of the removal of barriers to trade, is supposed to cut down prices of goods, but the phenomenon does not apply to pharmaceuticals.
“Nowadays everybody buys cheaper Chinese toys and Americans are buying clothing from Bangladesh. But medicines are under patent, under intellectual property. This is not the free market. This is a monopoly.”
This is the reason why the cancer drugs are very expensive, she said.
Companies have been given the right to patent on the argument that they need it to recoup their cost and investment on research and development.
“But the problem is that we do not know how much it cost them. Governments and companies need to be able to work on the basis of true information.”
She cited that estimates to develop a medicine vary from $100 million to $4.2 billion.
“It is really impossible,” she said, adding that there should be transparency in this area.
Trade ministers must be aware of the health consequences of the trade agreements that include the provision that can affect the pharmaceutical market.
“So, there must be a health impact assessment of any trade agreement. This is the essential I want to make.”
When a trade requires Bangladesh to revise the patent law, the consequences of that on the medical system will have to be carefully studied, she added.