Global petition to put people before profits

The organisations this week launched a global online petition which they hoped would demonstrate the strength of global public support for World Trade Organisation (WTO) patent rules that “put people before the profits of powerful drug companies”. The petition is addressed to Bush, who is described in the statement as “a leading international figure whose government is blocking changes and clarifications to the TRIPS Agreement that would mean cheaper medicines for people in developing countries”.

TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) is an agreement that by 2006 all signatories (which means all members of the World Trade Organisation) must give drug companies 20 years’ patent protection on their inventions. The petition will run until the WTO Ministerial in Quatar in November where it will be handed over to the US Government.

Oxfam advocacy co-ordinator Mecedes Sayagues said that in order for the petition to be successful it needed to attract mass support.

“We estimate that we have to gain at least 250 000 signatures to have an impact,” she said.

The petition page can be found at http://www.oxfam.org.uk/unclesam/ With the passing of the Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act, No 90 of 1997 (Medicines Act), South Africa can use measures such as compulsory licensing and parallel importation to access cheaper or generic medicine. Compulsory licensing gives a local firm the right to make a copy of an expensive patented drug at a lower price, while compensating the patent holder.

TRIPS includes the right to issue compulsory licences. This right may be used where a patent holder (the manufacturer who first registered the invention or drug) can be shown to be abusing its monopoly position, or in cases of national emergency.

The process of parallel importation allows governments to buy drugs from countries where prices are already lower, thus trading in parallel with the local seller of the same drugs. Parallel importation is based on the principle of exhaustion of rights – a patent holder’s rights are said to be “exhausted” once the product is first placed on the market, allowing the purchaser to resell the product without offending the intellectual property rights of that patent holder.

The drug companies say that parallel importation conflicts with the World Trade Organisations rules on intellectual property, but Article 6 of TRIPS says that the agreement does not cover parallel importation. Many countries in the European Union and the USA practise a policy of parallel importing.

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