Oxfam launches stinging attack on drug industry over cheap medicines ban

British charity Oxfam has accused the global pharmaceutical industry and the world’s rich nations of waging “an undeclared drugs war” against poor countries by refusing to allow them to produce low-cost equivalents of some life-saving medicines.

In a stinging attack on the world’s pharmaceutical giants at the launch of its “Cut the Cost” campaign, Oxfam said developing countries should be allowed to produce copies of drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, respiratory infections and diarrhoea in children. The charity said the price of such medicines was prohibitively high for many because of exclusive marketing rights created by patents held by major drug companies. And expensive medicines are “one of the major causes of poverty and suffering” with some 11 million people worldwide dying each year from preventable disease, it said. “Locally-produced, low cost medicines are a lifeline for poor people,” said Oxfam. “India, for instance, can make antibiotics at an eighth of the price of patented versions.” But they cannot do so because of the patents.

The charity singled out GlaxoSmithKline, warning it would throughout 2001 be targeting the British juggernaut that was born in December from fusion between GlaxoWellcome and SmithKline Beecham. Oxfam said it wanted GlaxoSmithKline to state clearly how it intends to fulfil its commitment “to maximise affordable medicines in the developing world” and to issue reports on the progress it is making in this regard. The pharmaceutical group must also “set a fair price for their medicines, based upon the ability of people in poor countries to pay for them.” Oxfam also called on the group, which has an annual turnover of more than one billion dollars, to dedicate a percentage of it sales towards research into diseases rampant in the Third World.

Responding, a spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline said the company “much regrets” Oxfam’s statement, and that it “offers little or no acknowledgement of the company’s long-standing commitment and contribution to meeting the challenge to increase the access to medicine in the developing world.” He in particular quoted SmithKline’s programme to eliminate lymphatic filariasis, a tropical disease, and of GlaxoWellcome’s actions programme against malaria and tuberculosis. “But we will study their recommendations carefully,” the spokesman said.

Oxfam said that under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, patents on medicines produced by the drug industry are protected for 20 years. “This is the shadowy side of globalisation. The WTO must change the rules that the drug industry is now using to cripple cheap, local competition, which in turn is inflating the cost of new and patented medicines,” it added.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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