Stop the bullying tactics of big pharma

Stop the bullying tactics of big pharma


By: Heidi Chow
Date: 2 March 2018
Campaigns: Pharma

novartis_action_06The Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Novartis holds it AGM today in Basel, Switzerland and different groups across the world are joining forces to protest its bullying tactics that  were exposed in a recently leaked letter. The letter reveals how the CEO of Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Novartis wrote to the President of Colombia in 2016 to stop the government from exercising its legal right to make a leukemia drug affordable. Novartis had previously priced the drug imatinib, sold by Novartis as Glivec, at twice an average person’s annual income in Colombia.

Corporate profits over human lives

Branded drugs are protected by patents that prevent other companies from making or selling that drug for a twenty year period. With no competition, pharmaceutical companies can charge whatever they want and push essential medicines out of reach for people who need them. It’s a scandal that elevates corporate profits over human lives on epic proportions and it’s propped up by the global trade deal, ‘Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights’ (TRIPS).

TRIPS already provides extensive protection for corporate profits and yet pharmaceutical companies are still fighting ferociously to defend their rights to make excessive profits. The leaked letter exposed how Novartis interfered with Colombia’s sovereign and lawful Public Interest Declaration on Glivec which is a first step towards implementing price controls or a compulsory license. TRIPS allows governments to issue a compulsory license which is a license given to another company to produce a patented drug without the patent-holder’s consent. In effect, it breaks the monopoly held by pharmaceutical companies over a medicine in the public’s interest and enables other companies to produce and sell the medicine at a much cheaper price. It’s a right that is enshrined in TRIPs and was confirmed once again in the Doha Declaration. Yet the government of Colombia is feeling the pressure from industry about even considering granting a compulsory license and expressed its concerns to World Intellectual Property Office.

This is not the first time that Novartis has threatened the Colombian government for taking action to lower the price of the drug. In another leaked letter from Novartis to the Ministry of Trade and Industry earlier in 2016, Novartis threatened to sue Colombia under the investor to state dispute settlement (ISDS) using the Swiss-Colombian Bilateral Investment Treaty. The ISDS process allows corporations to sue governments for introducing policies that are harmful to corporate profits.

There’s a pattern here

Just last month, US based pharmaceutical industry lobby group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), of which Novartis is a member, requested that the US government considers trade retaliations against countries that are taking steps to put patients access to medicines ahead of intellectual property rights. And this week it was revealed that US trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, has written to the Colombian government to warn that “key stakeholders remain dissatisfied” with its policies on access to medicines. The pharmaceutical industry is desperate to protect their profits and prevent governments from using their legal right to grant compulsory licenses to make medicines affordable.

Unfortunately the pressure experienced by the Colombian Government is not unique. The report of  the United Nations Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Access to Medicines (HLP) identified examples of this in Colombia and Thailand and acknowledged, ‘governments and corporations sometimes threaten political or economic retaliation as a means of illegitimately pressuring others into forgoing their TRIPS flexibilities’.

This is not the first time that the actions of Novartis have hit the headlines. Only a few weeks ago, the company was implicated in a major corruption scandal in Greece for allegedly bribing senior politicians – eight former ministers and two former prime ministers – in return for securing higher drug prices in Greece and the rest of Europe, including the UK. In 2006, Novartis took the Indian government to court for refusing to grant a new patent on imatinib (brand name, Glivec). The drug became available in crystal form and Novartis argued this was sufficient to grant a new patent which would have provided extended monopoly protection to reap huge profits for Novartis but would have impacted patient access to the drug. After a seven year legal battle, the Indian Supreme Court rejected the company’s legal challenge.

Millions of people across the world face the heartbreaking prospect of not being able to get hold of the medicines they need because of high drug prices charged by pharmaceutical companies. Yet the legal rights, embedded in TRIPS that allow governments to do something about it, is being seriously challenged by big drug companies. It’s time to take a stand so that governments don’t feel bullied out of using their legal right.

Take action now to call on Novartis to stop bullying countries from taking steps that help people access life-saving medicines.