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Pharmaceutical companies keep the price high, but medicines don’t need to be so expensive

Pharmaceutical companies keep the price high, but medicines don’t need to be so expensive

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Lecture by founder of the Medicines Patent Pool: Ellen ‘t Hoen

MAASTRICHT. It is about time that everyone has access to the right medicines, whether you live in America, Europe or Africa. At the moment the pharmaceutical industry has so much power that they can keep prices high. The UM wants to do something about this and signed the Socially Responsible Research and Licensing Policy this week. Ellen ’t Hoen, expert in the field of medicine policies and intellectual property, told how pharmaceutical companies keep the prices of medicines so high that they are unaffordable for patients in developing countries.

Ellen ’t Hoen, legal expert and founder of the Medicines Patent Pool (an organisation that negotiates with pharmaceutical companies for cheap medicines in developing countries) and connected for years to Doctors Without Borders. On Tuesday evening, after the SSRL Policy was signed, she gave a lecture entitled “Pharmaceutical Monopolies: How Saving Lives became a Business.”

The problem received great attention through the HIV/AIDS crisis, says Ellen ’t Hoen just before her lecture. “At the beginning of 2000, medicines for HIV and AIDS came on the market, but only patients in the Western world could afford them. We discovered that this had nothing to do with production costs. Medicines that cost us ten thousand euro per year per person, could be manufactured in India for 300 euro. But this was not allowed because of patents. Pharmaceutical companies had the sole right to market this medicine.”

Scientists saw that their research, which often constitutes the basis of new medication, was unavailable to people in developing countries. Students from Yale University in New Haven (US) were outraged. Yale had played an important role in the development of the AIDS medicine and had transferred the rights to pharmaceutical company BMS. The latter refused the import of a cheaper version to South Africa. The students started their first action in 2001. They demanded that the conditions of the contracts that their university signs when they transfer research results to the pharmaceutical industry, be changed: access for everyone, was their motto. “This formed the basis of a worldwide student movement, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM).”

The Yale students were successful and under pressure from public opinion BMS gave in and the country that was suffering from an AIDS epidemic was given access to cheaper medicines.

“Much has changed since 2000, but the question still remains: how are we going to get cheaper medicines for cancer, hepatitis B and tuberculosis on the market? Cheaper is possible, but the patents are a barrier. The Medicines Patent Pool is working on this, as is the World Health Organisation (WHO). The latter added to the list of essential medicines a number of medicines that are not yet available in a cheaper version. That is an important signal. The danger remains that you will have to negotiate for each individual product. It would be good if universities set demands when they transfer a licence to the industry.”

As far as the discussion in the Netherlands is concerned, focussing on cancer medicines that are very expensive, and also more expensive than in surrounding countries: “Fifteen years ago, this was a non-issue, as prices were a lot lower then. Now they are sky-high. Pharmaceutical companies say that it is out of their hands because development costs of their products are astronomical.” They claim that lower prices could block further and new research. “But those are scare tactics,” says Hoen. “Much of what they put on the market is not terribly innovative and there is often a lot of government support included as well, either through universities or European subsidies. At the moment, it is not clear how much it costs to create a medicine. You don’t know what a fair price is. That must be clear before you start negotiating.”

Perhaps research should be organised and/or financed differently, Hoen suggests. If only because some projects have been suspended for lack of financial profit potential. “Take, for example, a new type of antibiotic. Imagine that a pharmaceutical company has developed this, then it couldn’t sell this with an aggressive marketing policy. After all, it is not desirable that such a medicine is used on a large scale. This would promote resistance, resulting in bacteria no longer being sensitive to this new antibiotic.” Profits would most likely be very limited, if any are to be made at all. “You cannot ask that of a pharmaceutical company; they have to make a profit. Other parties should take this upon themselves.”

Signing the SSRL policy

More research into neglected diseases and access to essential medicines for everyone; that’s how to improve people’s health. Students are dedicating themselves to this worldwide. Also in Maastricht. Last Tuesday, President of the Executive Board Martin Paul, FHML dean Albert Scherpbier, and Jeffrey Buckle on behalf of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) signed the SSRL policy: Socially Responsible Research and Licensing Policy. With their signatures, Maastricht University promises to promote responsible research and innovation in the fields of Health, Medicine and Bioscience. Photo: Joey Roberts



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