Easing of IPR law to cut medicine prices
Quezon City (26 October) -- FOREIGN pharmaceutical companies can argue that medicines in the Philippines are not the most expensive in the world, but there is no arguing that they are not cheap, either.
This is especially true when local drug prices are compared with those in India and Pakistan, two countries that have loosened intellectual property rights. along the radical lines proposed by Senator Manuel Roxas II.
The government's Philippine International Trading Corp. (PITC) says prices of pharmaceutical products sold locally are so high that an average of four in five Filipinos live -- and sometimes die -- without access to medicine.
"Six years ago, the World Health Organization said that less than 30 percent [of Filipinos] had access to medicines," PITC chairman and president Roberto Pagdanganan said in an interview. "That number has now fallen further."
At present, PITC's main activity is to scour the globe for branded medicines that are cheaper than those sold locally, import them in bulk, and sell them at prices lower than those offered by foreign pharmaceutical firms.
Often, PITC offers medicines manufactured by the same pharmaceutical firms, but at significantly lower prices -- a practice that the foreign manufacturers oppose.
"Why will these very same companies sell the same medicines in India or Pakistan for so much less, while pricing them so high here?" Pagdanganan said. "This is not right."
Indeed, a survey of prices conducted by PITC from its foreign forays revealed that Norvasc, a prescription drug for hypertension, costs the equivalent of only P5 in India, but is sold at P44.75 locally; a Ventolin inhaler for bronchial asthma is sold at P231 in Thailand, but sells for P406 in the Philippines; and Bactrim 400, an antibiotic to treat a wide range of infections, costs P17.75 in local drugstores, but is priced the equivalent of P1 in Pakistan and P0.69 in India.
Recently, the local unit of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer sued PITC before the Makati Regional Trial Court after the government agency started importing its Norvasc anti-hypertension drug while the company's patent was still in effect, a practice that allegedly violates the company's intellectual property rights.
In the interview, Pagdanganan accused Pfizer of harassing his agency, noting that he was sued for importing only 40 tablets that PITC would compare with the same medicines marketed locally.
At the same time, he accused Pfizer of leading a disinformation campaign to make the public wary of generic medicines.
"They are deliberately misinforming the public that generics are no good," he said. "Have you seen that [television] ad by Pfizer? The subliminal message is that generics are fake."
For Pagdanganan, the way forward to ensure that more Filipinos can afford medicines is the swift passage of the Roxas bill, which will remove any doubt as to whether PITC's activities are legal or not.
"That will solve this case once and for all," he said.
Among other thing, the Roxas bill -- Senate Bill No. 2263 -- seeks to adopt the "early working" doctrine to allow generic producers to get ready earlier so that they can start the production and sale of a generic drug shortly after its patent expires.
"This proposed amendment is known internationally as the Bolar amendments after such were entered into US laws," Roxas said in an interview. "Many other countries have adopted similar provisions, such as Canada, Argentina, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Moreover, this principle has been recognized by the WTO in a case involving Canada versus the European Union member states."
The proposed law will also adopt the "doctrine of international exhaustion of intellectual property rights" from the present domestic exhaustion principle currently applied in the Philippines.
"Under the international exhaustion regime, once a product has been introduced anywhere in the world by the patent owner, then anyone may buy and import the same for resale in the Philippines without risk of patent infringement," the senator explained. "Consequently, this amendment will allow the parallel importation of medicines so that anyone, whether a trader or an individual, can shop beyond our shores for better prices."
"We have a solemn duty to correct this injustice," Roxas said.
Naturally, foreign pharmaceutical firms have been fighting tooth and nail to protect their rights -- and profit margins -- from the erosion that the Roxas bill will cause.
What is clear, however, is that the so-called "oligopolistic practices" of these foreign pharmaceutical firms are under increasing pressure from the consumers and the government, and by globalization.
It is no longer a question of "if" medicine prices will come down, but one of "how fast." (PIA) [top]