Pharmaceuticals: the New States

Article published on Feb. 23, 2004
community published
Article published on Feb. 23, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The profit-making ethos of pharmaceutical companies, headed by the German Bayer, is threatening the safety of States. The multinationals have a choice: which will it be, ethics or profits?

The States aren’t the only players on the increasingly globalised world stage. As the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development made all too clear, multinationals have a fundamental role to play in the international sphere. Enter the pharmaceutical companies.

When we think of State security what comes to mind is the image of the security forces. However, there are situations in which these forces can offer us no protection whatsoever; there are elements that escape their control, though not that of certain other international players. We’re talking about epidemics and infectious diseases that undeniably threaten national and international security (as Butros Butros Ghali put forward in his ‘Agenda for Peace’) and about the larger pharmaceuticals which, patent in hand, refuse to intervene (without a ‘reasonable’ charge).

Dictatorship of the patents

In Europe, the problem doesn’t match the mammoth dimensions of the third world. There, the States’ lack of financial resources frequently undermines safety, most notably in the case of diseases such as AIDS or leprosy. In the face of this, the profits of the leading multinationals - Bayer (Germany), Novartis (Switzerland), Merck and Pzifer (the US), Roche (Switzerland) and Glaxo (the UK) - reached $517,000 million in 2002.

Our health services are currently fighting with the pharmaceutical industry, hoping to be able to produce generic medication that would allow a reduction in costs. In countries such as Namibia, one of southern Africa’s wealthiest, cases of AIDS are ever on the increase. Although the pharmaceuticals sell their patented products at very low prices, they are still unaffordable for the country’s population. Patent in hand it is impossible to produce anti-retroviral medication at a cost infinitely below what the majority of the populations in the affected countries could afford. Africa has 24.5 million people infected with AIDS/HIV; that’s 71% of those infected world-wide. They see themselves as victims of a double ‘tyranny’: the pharmaceuticals that will under no circumstances jeopardise their profits, and the trafficking of imitation products, which is on the increase. The illegal trafficking networks operating in the third world are selling more and more so-called ‘medication’. Capsules filled with sugar that are meant to reduce fever in children or kill pain are readily available and, in many cases, end up killing those who take them believing them to be authentic.

Ethics or profits?

In the words of the Director of the World Health Organisation ‘health and the interests of property are irreconcilable’. One of the most striking cases is that of the German company Bayer, whose profits are among the highest in the world (25 corporations net 50% of the total sale of drugs, a percentage that rises to 60 or 80% in the most profitable sectors). A company tied up with sustainable development, Bayer runs projects in various countries related to climatic change and air contamination, programmes tackling racism, reconstruction programmes, etc. But it’s strange that it has no access programmes to medication for those who most need it; after all, the production of this medication is what their business is all about. Bayer has been accused of selling unsafe medication to the third world in the 80s, while in Europe and the US it was selling more advanced forms. In Hong Kong and Taiwan alone, more than 100 haemophiliacs contracted the HIV virus through the consumption of unsafe products (Factor VIII). Bayer ended up paying those affected 600 million dollars in compensation following years of trials.

Basically, the third world wants a better deal. TRIPS, international agreements related to patenting rights, guarantee 20 year-patents for medicines. The conference in Doha called for a modification, or at least a slackening, of these agreements. While older drugs are patent free, new medicines are subject to protection and their cost makes them unaffordable in developing, and even in developed, countries. After 9/11, the US didn’t hesitate to pressurise Bayer into producing Cipro, a patented antibiotic treatment against anthrax, for the elevated price at which the pharmaceutical wanted to sell it. In the end, a lower price was agreed upon, but a single tablet still cost the consumer more than 4 dollars. For the American wallet $4 isn’t much, but if we transpose this for example to Cuba (where the average wage is $10) we’re talking about just under a half of a person’s salary.

Despite this, we’re still hearing the same old words, this time from the mouth of Harvey Bale, Director-General of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association: ‘We need this intellectual property protection around the world, not necessarily in all the poor countries of the world, […] but for middle-upper-income developing and developed countries this kind of intellectual property protection is absolutely essential for the industry’.