Lifesaving medicines

Orly Mercado

Posted on November 19, 2006

Something for your blood pressure

Anyone who has high blood pressure knows he has to take his medication daily – for life. And if he lives in a developing country like the Philippines, he knows it can be expensive. So when the government does something to make inexpensive drugs available, and a pharmaceutical giant sues it, it can be stressful enough to give one a stroke.

It’s nothing new. Parallel importation has been done before, albeit on a smaller scale. But now that the Philippine International Trading Corporation (PITC) plans to buy one billion pesos worth of meds to keep Filipinos from dying from cardio-vascular attacks, it gets hailed to court.

Pfizer has become a household name, and has earned a lot of money from its wildly successful Viagra, which makes men with erectile dysfunction rise up to the occasion. But it is not about to allow its profits to go limp. Among others it has raised the issue of patient safety. It claims that the drugs PITC is importing are from “unauthorized sources” in India and Pakistan.

The struggle to make drugs and medicines an integral part of the public good is a long and arduous task. In 1988, when as a freshman Senator, I was fighting the drug industry as author of the Generics Drugs and Medicines Act, the same scare tactics were used. Even then, their shrill warnings about fake and unreliable drugs were ignored by most indigent patients who were more afraid of dying without having as much as a fighting chance. Generic drugs are now widely available as an alternative to branded ones.

Today, these gains appear to be puny in the light of what these drug companies can do for the poor by just holding back a bit. But why do drug companies care so much about generics in developing countries?

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz provides us an answer in his latest book Making Globalization Work. “The answer typically provided by the drug companies is that they worry that the cheap drugs will be exported to the United States and Europe, and this could affect their profits enormously. The argument, however, is not totally persuasive. There are already huge price differences around the world, and only limited circumvention, largely because this is a largely regulated industry, with import tightly controlled, and with most purchases paid by third parties. The real reason, I suspect, has to do with the fear that if Americans (or Europeans) were to see the discrepancy between what the drug companies are charging and what the drugs could be purchased for, there would be enormous pressures put on pricing.”

It is still all about greed, now please excuse me as I can feel my blood pressure rising.

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