They steal poor communities’ traditional/indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants and then patent, manufacture and sell the medicines they make from them at very high prices, worldwide.
They develop new medicines in their government-funded laboratories, get them approved for public distribution after government-funded testing, and then claim a 20-year patent that provides an exclusive right to manufacture, price and profit from government’s investment.
This may make the large Western pharmaceutical companies (Big Pharma) the biggest economic imperialists on planet earth.
The unsuspecting consumers of Big Pharma products have never done much about the high prices of medicines or the imperial way Big Pharma directs that they be used.
Big Pharma has worked hard to convince the public just to be grateful for the medicines — and appreciative of the benefits Big Pharma has derived from the medicinal plants mostly looted from the rural communities of developing countries.
The US consumers, who are the largest market and pay the highest prices for these medicines, have generally been silent about this state of affairs — until this month when an American cancer patient protested publicly against the high prices and dictatorial procedures involved in the bone cancer medicines he has been prescribed.
In an article in the highly regarded Los Angeles Business Journal, he noted that he initially paid US$2 600 for a month’s supply of two cancer medicines; six months later the price went up to US$3 006 without explanation or justification.
He says he knows why the cost is high — the drug manufacturer’s monopoly on these two medicines. But he asks: “Why is one refrigerated and the other not? Why do I take one pill of one medicine, but two of the other? Why do I take one, once a day, and the other, twice a day? Couldn’t these two medicines be combined into a single dose to be taken just once a day?”
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Upon reading the cancer patient’s article, this writer saw the parallels between Big Pharma’s influence over Western governments and its shameless theft of traditional medicinal knowledge and plants from Africa.
There was a compelling need to interview the patient, Godfrey Harris, who is also one of my environmental news sources. He is an American public policy specialist and former adviser to the 36th US President, Lyndon Johnson.
He noted that the world should condemn the “economic corruption inherent in allowing the US pharmaceutical industry to profit so blatantly through its manipulation of the American government.” He said it didn’t surprise him to learn how Big Pharma had stolen Africa’s medicinal secrets as well.
Harris’ cancer drug price-protest is targeted at Novartis, a Swiss company with a major US presence. That company was involved in a biopiracy case documented by Swiss television in June 2000.
The programme indicated that Novartis violated the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UN CBD) when the University of Lausanne’s Kurt Hostettmann searched for a natural “Viagra” medicine on its behalf.
The San communities of South Africa — the hunter-gatherer peoples also known as Bushmen — suffered theft at the hands of Big Pharma when Pfizer and other companies stole hoodia gordonni. This plant’s appetite suppressing compound, P57, made products to fight obesity a must-buy.
The San communities robbed in the process challenged the patent agreement signed among the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Pfizer, Phytopharm and Uniliver. The San had not given prior informed consent and had not received any benefit-sharing arrangements.
Eventually the San communities received payments running into the millions of dollars. To manage this agreement, the San Hoodia Benefit-sharing Trust was established to ensure that the monies received would be used for general development and training.
The value to the pharmaceutical industry of plants derived from developing countries is over US$30 billion annually, according to a recent study commissioned by the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The Pharm Letter website which published the UNDP report says that the UNDP also noted that the indigenous communities are not acknowledged, “far less compensated for the material and local knowledge which has been taken from them.”
Big Pharma’s shameless exploitation goes beyond looting knowledge of medicinal plants and the plants themselves. Lately, some Big Pharma companies have been fined for their illegal medical business practices.
Novartis, for one, recently showed its malpractice underbelly when it paid a US$648 million fine for violating the US False Claims Act (FCA). This involved improper amounts Novartis charged the American government. It also was fined for kickbacks paid to physicians to induce them to prescribe such Novartis drugs as Lotrel, Valturna, Starlix, Tekturna, Tekturna HCT, Tekamlo, Diovan, Diovan HCT, Exforge, and Exforge HCT.
This background suggests that Harris’ issues with Novartis should be taken very seriously by the US government.
He is also frustrated that the American public — or the myriad agencies that represent it in the medical arena — don’t demand that drugs be more patient-friendly and transparent. Harris blames US regulatory body, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for not requiring answers to the questions he raises about Big Pharma companies.
“All the FDA wants to know is whether a new drug, medical device or surgical procedure can be shown to be both safe and effective. No one at FDA is looking to improve the product itself or lower its price.”
Harris said Big Pharma is “perfectly happy at present with the stunning profits that they can generate with their patent-protected monopolies.”
Yet, he added, all of us know how competition can bring improvements that benefit consumers.
“So, the question is whether competition can be introduced into government-controlled prescription drug space to encourage medicines to work better and perhaps be cheaper for consumers.”
Harris provided a novel answer to his own question. “It might be easier politically in the US to improve patent law than change medical regulations,” he said.
The key consideration in this is that Big Pharma doesn’t own the legislators and bureaucrats in the American Congress and the US executive branch that controls patent policy in the same way they own them in the medical field through jobs, campaign contributions, travel opportunities, speech honoraria, research grants and the like.
“Why shouldn’t we disrupt the proprietary drug industry in a way akin to how Amazon changed the bookselling business and Apple changed the concept of what a phone can do?” asked Harris.
“And why shouldn’t American intellectual property lawyers be at the forefront of the revolution, given all the new business they would generate?”
Harris’ protest in the US resonates with the efforts that developing countries, NGOs and poor rural communities are making to prevent Big Pharma’s continued theft and appropriation of their traditional knowledge of medicinal plants.
Zimbabwe as well as other African countries should stop playing the victim of Big Pharma, complaining to themselves and their electorates. Instead, they should hire a big-time US lawyer to sue Big Pharma companies for the billions of dollars they have been stealing from Africa.
Law suits of this nature get international headlines, sympathy and attention. They also force big companies to settle the legal claims before losing larger sums a jury might award to those cheated.
- Emmanuel Koro is Johannesburg-based international award-winning environmental journalist who writes independently on environmental and developmental issues in Africa.