December 01, 2006
Pharma Companies Need to Keep Improving AIDS Response, Says ICCR and Nigerian Doctor
by Bill Baue
Chukwumuanya Igboekwu of Physicians for Social Justice adds his own critiques to the Interfaith
Center on Corporate Responsibility study on pharmaceutical industry shortcomings in addressing
Underscoring the gravity of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on this World AIDS Day is the release earlier this week
of a study estimating that AIDS will move from fourth to third among top causes of death
worldwide in the next quarter century, with almost 120 million deaths projected. Increased access
to antiretroviral (ARV) drugs could help slice a quarter of this number, bringing global AIDS
deaths down to 89 million. Future outcomes depend on what the international community does in the
present, according to Colin Mathers, who co-authored the study with World Health Organization (WHO) colleague Dejan Loncar.
happening currently to increase ARV access? In August 2006, the Interfaith Center on Corporate
Responsibility (ICCR) produced the most thorough
pharmaceutical company action on HIV/AIDS, documenting how the industry falls significantly short
of best practice. ICCR, a coalition of 275 faith-based institutional investors and socially
responsible investing (SRI) firms, recently reviewed
pharma company action since the release of the report, and found real progress on some fronts, but
little movement on other fronts.
On the progress side, pharma companies have increased
licensing and technology transfer to generic drug companies and lowered some prices of life-saving
medicines. On the stagnation side, ICCR found little improvement in the availability of pediatric
ARVs, struggles over ARV access outside sub-Saharan Africa as the pandemic spreads, and lack of
board-level attention to these pressing issues.
The very publication of the report likely
prompted what progress occurred, according to Chukwumuanya Igboekwu of Physicians for Social
Justice (PSJ) in Nigeria, home to 4 million HIV-positive people with only 50,000 of them having
access to ARVs as of 2005.
"The report has created positive effects--some of the companies
are beginning to listen to advocates saying, 'You cannot put your profit before public health,'"
Dr. Igboekwu told SocialFunds.com. Dr. Igboekwu is currently a fellow in the Human Rights
Advocates Program (HRAP) at Columbia
University. "The report has put pharmaceutical companies in the spotlight and forced them to react
The Business and
Human Rights Resource Centre posted the report along with company responses to it on its
website. It recently added a paper by Dr. Igboekwu in which he identifies
patent protection under the World Trade Organization Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement
as a persisting problem in pharma companies' response to AIDS.
"The net effect of TRIPS is
its success in effectively blocking the availability of cheaper generic medicines," Dr. Igboekwu
wrote. "By blocking access to life-saving medicines for millions of people all over the world,
pharmaceutical companies and the governments who support them are in gross violation of
international human rights law."
Dr. Igboekwu cites the case of Novartis (ticker: NVS) filing a
lawsuit in India to protect patents covering certain of its cancer drugs from infringement by
"Knowing full well that India supplies the bulk of generic drugs to most
developing countries, Novartis aims to sever the pharmaceutical supply lifeline of these nations,"
he wrote in his paper. "The outcome of that suit is going to set precedent over whether these
countries are going to have access to cheaper drugs or not," he told SocialFunds.com
Business and Human Rights Resource Centre posted a response to this
paper from Novartis in which the company points out that Novartis provides the cancer drug in
question for free to 99 percent of all patients receiving the medicine in India.
other hand, the generic versions of Glivec in India are priced at approximately 4.5 times the
average annual income, putting them out of reach for most patients," states Novartis. "Clearly,
this example illustrates that generics do not, and will not, sufficiently address the need for
access to Glivec or other life saving medicines in many countries."
Dr. Igboekwu generally
praised philanthropic efforts of pharma companies, but criticized the model's lack of
"If somebody has AIDS and is on antiretroviral medicines, he is going to
need that drug for the rest of his life--what if after five years, a new management comes on board
and decides to stop the program?" Dr. Igboekwu asked. "The long term solution is for them to start
looking at ways of reducing the price of these products."
Dr. Igboekwu also pointed to
another solution: ignore intellectual property laws.
"Brazil offers universal
antiretroviral therapy for all citizens because they have simply refused to obey patent laws--they
argue that this is a national security issue," he pointed out, while noting the political reality
that most developing countries cannot be so bold. "We have about 600,000 people who urgently need
ARV medications in Nigeria, but the government is still struggling to offer 250,000 people with
treatment because of the simple fact that some of the ARVs are too expensive."
chafed at the notion of flouting intellectual property law.
"We do not believe that
denying patent protection for innovative medicines and promoting unlawful generic production and
use in developing countries will help patients or increase their access to treatment," the company
For Dr. Igboekwu, it boils down to prioritizing human rights.
working in human rights advocacy because of the frustration I felt over having patients living with
HIV that I couldn't help," he told SocialFunds.com. "I was trained as a physician to save lives,
not to watch people die."