In a display of just how far the U.S. government is willing to go in protecting Big Pharma, it was revealed that a Senate staffer hinted that peace deals in Colombia could be threatened if the country challenges a patent on an expensive cancer drug.
The controversy centers around a leukemia drug called Gleevec, made by Swiss-based Novartis. Prices have increased 10 percent or more every year, causing heavy strain on health care systems in middle-income countries such as Colombia.
Novartis, which made $4.7 billion from Gleevec last year, has enjoyed a patent monopoly on the drug for ten years. The patent ended on February 1 in the U.S., but will remain in Colombia until 2018. While a generic version of the life-saving drug already promises to bring prices down in the U.S., Colombia is held hostage by the continuing foreign-based monopoly.
The Colombian government announced that it will give Novartis a few weeks to lower the price on Gleevec before it uses “compulsory licenses” to let companies make generic versions. It proposed a price reduction of less than half the current regulated price, which is still much higher than what generic versions cost.
Novartis refused, instead turning to its friends in the U.S. government.
“Leaked diplomatic letters sent from Colombia’s Embassy in Washington describe how a staffer with the Senate Finance Committee, which is led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, warned of repercussions if Colombia moves forward on approving the cheaper, generic form of a cancer drug…
In the second letter, after a meeting with Senate Finance Committee International Trade Counsel Everett Eissenstat, [Andres] Flórez wrote that Eissenstat said that authorizing the generic version would “violate the intellectual property rights” of Novartis. Eissenstat also said that if “the Ministry of Health did not correct this situation, the pharmaceutical industry in the United States and related interest groups could become very vocal and interfere with other interests that Colombia could have in the United States,” according to the letter.
In particular, Flórez expressed a worry that “this case could jeopardize the approval of the financing of the new initiative ‘Peace Colombia.’”
The initiative could end decades of bloody fighting and aid in efforts to remove land mines in Colombia, which is second only to Afghanistan in land mine fatalities.
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U.S. lawmakers have no problem breaking patents when it serves their interest, such as the compulsory licensing granted for night vision goggles, most likely to benefit the surveillance state. But when it's a matter of life and death in other countries struggling with health care costs, these politicians will show their allegiance to the corporatocracy.
As the leaked memos show, American politicians would even abandon the cause of making peace.
Naturally, a spokesperson for Sen. Orrin Hatch feigned ignorance, pretending that they can’t possibly have any influence over the Peace Colombia initiative. According to Julia Lawless, the Senate Finance Committee “has no jurisdiction over the Paz Colombia initiative and it was not discussed.”
The suggestion that Hatch and his cohorts would not do the bidding of Novartis is absurd, considering the ties to Big Pharma as reported by the Intercept.
“Hatch has close ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Pharmaceutical and health product manufacturers form the second-largest pool of donors to his campaigns. The industry’s main trade association, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, spent $750,000 funding an outside nonprofit that backed Hatch’s re-election in 2012. The lobbying group also employed Scott Hatch, one of the senator’s sons, as a lobbyist, while donating to his family charity, the Utah Families Foundation.”
According to Public Citizen, about a dozen countries have used compulsory licenses, mostly for HIV and cancer treatments. Novartis and its allies in Congress are worried that Colombia might set a precedent for others to challenge patent monopolies.
"The pressure against Colombia is bogus but it's real," said Andrew Goldman, a counsel for Knowledge Ecology International, the Washington-based group that first obtained the embassy memos. "We always assume that this kind of intervention is happening behind the scenes but rarely do you get the chance to see it up close."
While everyone has a right to profit from their original product, using the power of the state to preserve a monopoly allows corporations to act outside of market forces and charge extraordinary prices, with poorer regions suffering the most. This collusion also lends to the broken system of politics that characterizes Washington, where the thirst for money and power has rendered voting meaningless.