Friday, May 24, 2013

Thousands of Ugandan lives at stake after generic AIDS drugs deadline extension snub

The lives of thousands of Ugandans enrolled on HIV treatment hangs in the balance if an application by poor countries to extend the deadline for manufacture of generic AIDS drugs indefinitely, is rejected by the World Trade Organization (WTO), in on-going negotiations under a treaty known as Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) . Over 90% of HIV drugs in Uganda are generic drugs manufactured mostly in India, according to Denis Kibira, a pharmacist and Medicines Advisor at HEPS-Uganda. Generic drugs are identical copies of drugs manufactured by brand names. Quality Chemicals, a Ugandan pharmaceutical company also manufactures generic drugs. Generic drugs which go for only about a tenth of the cost of brand drugs, were a major enabling factor for the acceleration in access to HIV treatment to the over six million currently on treatment. More than 1.6 million Ugandans live with HIV with an estimated 300,000 currently enrolled on antiretroviral treatment in Uganda. “The ability to access cheap medicines on the market will be curtailed and the fight against HIV/AIDS in Uganda may be lost if expansive trade laws are adopted without improving the incomes of Ugandans.” said Joshua Wamboga from TASO The initial deadline for the manufacture of generic HIV drugs was set to end in 2016 but an application by Haiti in November last year ,on behalf of all poor countries, to extend it indefinitely, has met with stiff opposition at the World Trade Organization which is dominated by rich industrialized countries where most patents for HIV drugs are held by large western multilateral giants such as Norvatis and Pfizer. The US,Europe and other developed country groups are reportedly behind the move to oppose the indefinite extension. Sources with in The World Trade Organization insists it would only be receptive to an extension of the ban on generic drugs for 5-7 years which poor countries are opposed to arguing that they can not build local pharmaceutical capacity for manufacturing original drugs with in that period. “This is unacceptable as the TRIPS Agreement states that upon a duly motivated request, the TRIPS council shall grant an extension. LDCs to which Uganda is categorized are justified in seeking an unlimited extension for so long as they are so classified because the suggested 5-7 years will not give us adequate time to overcome capacity constraints to develop a viable and competitive technological base.” States Mulumba Moses, Director at the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD). Civil society organizations in Uganda working in the area of intellectual property rights and access to medicines argue that the WTO is beholden to western interests. They have issued a letter to the WTO Council chair and Developed country Missions in Uganda to express their disapproval of the manner in which negotiations for the request to extend the time with in which Least Developed Countries (LDCs) can enforce Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) is being handled. ‘’It is infuriating to note that over the past few months, (WTO) has been chairing informal meetings between developed countries and least developed countries where LDCs have been pressed to agree to a shorter term of 5 - 7.5 years’’ says Primah Kwagala a lawyer with CEHURD. About a quarter of the Ugandan population lives under the poverty line, according to the Uganda bureau of Statistics, and the majority can not afford to buy brand drugs manufactured by western pharmaceutical companies to treat AIDS, malaria and Tuberculosis-the three most important diseases in the developing world. With over 90% of Ugandans dependent on Indian generic drugs, outlawing these drugs would jeopardize millions of lives. An extension of 5-7 years is not a long enough period to nurture the local pharmaceutical industry and for companies such as Quality Chemicals to develop original drugs and meet the local demand for medicines in Uganda. Millions of lives depend on the decision to extend this deadline and the WTO should exercise restraint by balancing the interests of western pharmaceutical giants with the public health and development needs of poor countries. In a land mark Kenyan court ruling last year, Justice Mumbi Ngugi ruled that intellectual property rights do not over ride the right to life and health.

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