Have you heard about that bird flu? The threatened pandemic, should it occur, will kill in a worst-case scenario 150 million people, including 7 million Americans. The resulting mountain of skulls would dwarf those piled up in all the wars of the 20th Century.
Yes, it’s scary stuff. People who research the virus say the question is when, not if, the pandemic will occur. And former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson describes the avian flu as “a really huge bomb.” The flu kills about 50 percent of the people it infects by attacking the lungs and causing hemorrhage. Healthy young people, those with the strongest immune systems, are most at risk.
To date, only one known drug can ward off death, and that is Tamiflu.
With all of this now widely known, one might expect the Bush administration – having failed to stop the 9⁄11 hijackers and having just eked through the post-Katrina debacle – to mobilize national resources to ensure that enough Tamiflu was on hand to treat every man, woman and child in the United States.
But it can’t. It doesn’t own the intellectual property rights to Tamiflu. Those rights are controlled by the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche Holding AG, which is only able to produce limited quantities of the medicine.
So when the pandemic hits, should you or yours be among the millions who drown in their own blood, take comfort in the fact that the sacred rights of private property survived.
A hyperbolic rant? Well, if you lived in the poorer regions of the planet and were among the millions of people infected with HIV or living with AIDS, you would be facing a similar situation. The drugs that save the lives of HIV-infected people in wealthy countries weren’t available to most of the 3 million people who died this past year of AIDS. In fact, of the estimated 6 million people in the world with AIDS, only 1 million are on an adequate drug regime – and that does not take into account the millions more who don’t have AIDS but are HIV-positive.
Poor countries have attempted to find ways around drug patents, though at every step of the way they have met fierce resistance from both the pharmaceutical corporations and the Bush administration. Brazil, which was paying 70 percent of the national AIDS budget to buy antiretroviral medicines from three drug companies, had to threaten to violate patent law in order to negotiate a lower price. And India, where companies were breaking international property rights law and manufacturing generic anti-retroviral drugs, shut down such factories as part of its agreement to join the WTO.
Similarly, as the world ponders a potential bird flu pandemic, people are beginning to question just how sacred property rights are. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva said, in reference to Roche, that the U.N. should be “making sure that we do not allow intellectual property to get into the way of access of the poor to medication … I wouldn’t want to hear the kind of debate we got into when it came to the HIV anti-retrovirals.” In Washington, Sen. Charles Schumer (D‑N.Y.) warned, “Roche is putting their own interests ahead of world health. If they don’t begin to actually license the patent for Tamiflu to dramatically increase worldwide production, I am going to pursue a legislative remedy.”
The chairman of Cipla, the Bombay company whose production of generic anti-AIDS drugs was stopped when India joined the WTO, told the New York Times, “Right or wrong, we’re going to commercialize and make oseltamivir [generic Tamiflu].” And in Tawain, which is not a member of the WTO, the National Health Research Institute has already begun manufacturing a generic Tamiflu.
“It’s lives or patents,” Institute president Cheng-en Wun told the New Zealand Herald. “We value intellectual property, but we have chosen life.”
When will we?
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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.