Robert Weissman: Big Pharma Digs In

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Big Pharma Digs In

robert weissman r...@essential.org 
Thu, 01 May 2008 13:30:54 -0400

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Big Pharma Digs In
By Robert Weissman
May 1, 2008

The nations of the world are currently debating how to design new 
medical research and development (R&D) mechanisms to serve the twin 
goals of promoting innovation to meet the particular needs of developing 
countries and ensuring that important medicines are accessible to people 
in the developing world, regardless of their income.

A successful conclusion to ongoing negotiations at the World Health 
Organization (WHO) -- scheduled to conclude at the end of this week -- 
could yield dramatic public health benefits in the years and decades 
ahead. Long-ignored research needs of poor countries might be addressed. 
Important new products might become affordable for all patients, not 
just those who live in rich countries or happen to be wealthy. New 
collaborative systems of conducting R&D might yield scientific 
breakthroughs for emerging public health threats that might otherwise be 
delayed, or never occur.

Big Pharma is watching the WHO talks with trepidation. The brand-name 
pharmaceutical companies are open to new government resources being 
invested to find treatments for diseases endemic to developing countries 
-- this represents a new business opportunity, after all. But they fear 
losing their pricing prerogatives, including to charge exorbitant rich 
country prices in middle-income countries. The companies are also very 
concerned that new R&D mechanisms may displace the global 
patent-monopoly system around which they have built their business 
models -- and which enable them to earn enormous profits.

In an effort to direct the WHO negotiations away from bolder measures 
that would advance public health objectives but might threaten its 
parochial interests, the industry is deploying the diverse set of 
instruments in its policy-influencing toolbox.

Predictably, Big Pharma is heavily influencing the positions of rich 
country governments in the WHO talks. Recent reports indicate 
disappointing intransigence from the United States, the European Union 
and Japan -- a shift from earlier negotiating rounds.

Industry finagling managed to get the Biotechnology Industry 
Organization, the U.S. biotech trade association, designated as 
"experts" for the WHO negotiations -- a designation that gives BIO 
representatives seats in the WHO negotiating room.

The global pharmaceutical industry confederation -- the International 
Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) -- 
has filled the corridors outside the talks with lobbyists. IFPMA has 59 
persons officially registered to participate in the meeting.

More insidiously, the industry's funded patient group and think tank 
allies have waged a propaganda campaign to discredit the WHO initiative 
-- without revealing their financial entanglements with the industry.

An entity called Patients and Patents has circulated a "Patient 
Declaration on Medical Innovation and Access." This declaration insists 
on the importance of patient group involvement in WHO negotiations 
before "recommending changes to international patent protection (IPP)."

Patients and Patents is governed by a seven-member advisory board. Six 
of the seven members of the advisory board are linked to the brand-name 
pharmaceutical industry, either directly as an individual or through 
their primary organization, and the seventh member has at least a weak 
tie to the industry.

One member of the governing advisory board, for example, is Durhane 
Wong-Rieger. Wong-Rieger is chair of the Consumer Advocare Network, 
which is funded by Canada's pharmaceutical industry trade association 
Rx&D. Wong-Reiger is also president of the Canadian Organization for 
Rare Disorders, which is funded by Actelion Pharmaceuticals, Amicus 
Therapeutics, Apo Pharma, BioMarin Pharmaceutical, BIOTECanada, 
Debiovision, Genzyme Canada, Hoffmann-LaRoche (Roche), Merck Frosst 
Canada, Neurochem, Novartis, Orfagen, Ortho Biotech, Pfizer, Rare 
Disease Therapeutics, Shire Human Genetics Therapies, Sigma-Tau 
Pharmaceuticals and YM Biosciences.

A high proportion of the signers of the Patient Declaration are also 
connected to the brand-name pharmaceutical industry. A review by 
Essential Action (an organization I direct) found 61 of 110 of the 
signers of the Declaration have industry ties.

A global network of industry-affiliated -- and frequently 
industry-funded -- libertarian think tanks have placed misleading op-eds 
in news outlets around the globe, denouncing the WHO negotiations. The 
authors do not disclose their industry ties.

Tim Wilson, for example, placed op-eds in the Business Standard (India) 
and in the Times of India, arguing that the WHO talks would undermine 
innovation and hurt people in developing countries. These articles 
identified him as affiliated with the Institute of Public Affairs in 
Melbourne, Australia. They did not note that at least half of Institute 
of Public Affairs' board of directors is comprised of individuals with 
financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

Other op-eds by industry-allied think tanks and academics have appeared 
in recent days in Malawi, Rwanda and Colombia. These followed a series 
of op-eds by industry-connected nonprofits and academics in the United 
States over the previous month. The U.S. op-eds focused on Thailand's 
issuance of compulsory licenses -- government authorizations of generic 
competition for products that remain on patent -- to make cancer, heart 
disease and HIV/AIDS drugs available to poor people in Thailand.

Big Pharma's effort to curtail or contain the WHO negotiations on 
medicine innovation and access is a comprehensive one. The industry is 
not at all shy about exercising its political power, and it is doing so. 
But Pharma execs also know that the industry suffers from enormous 
public relations problems that undermine its influence. Industry-funded 
or -connected organizations that trot out to propagate Big Pharma's 
myths and deceptions can be far more effective in muddying policy debates.

As the WHO talks began this week, Dr. Christophe Fournier, president of 
the International Council of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without 
Borders, said, “This week is not just about countries signing checks. 
It’s about changing the rules of medical innovation -- coming up with 
new proposals that ensure the drugs we need are developed and are made 
affordable. But with so many vested interests involved, will governments 
be bold enough to take that step?"

Thanks to Big Pharma's multi-faceted pressure campaign, that remains an 
open question.


Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational 
Monitor, <http://www.multinationalmonitor.org> and director of Essential 
Action <http://www.essentialaction.org>, which is advocating for a 
successful conclusion to the WHO talks.

(c) Robert Weissman

This article is posted at: 




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