By Ignacio Ramonet
In the drug trade, competition is not working and the large pharmaceutical groups resort to all kinds of dirty games to prevent the arrival of more effective drugs on the market and above all to disqualify much cheaper generic drugs. They are also implicated in the recent coup against President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, a country that imports all its medicines, mainly produced by "Big Pharma".
Very few media have commented on it. Public opinion has not been alerted. And yet the worrying conclusions of the Final Report (1), published by the European Commission on July 8, on competition abuses in the pharmaceutical sector deserve to be known by citizens and widely disseminated.
What does that report say? In short: that, in the drug trade, competition is not working, and that the large pharmaceutical groups resort to all kinds of dirty games to prevent the arrival of more effective drugs on the market and above all to disqualify generic drugs a lot cheaper. Consequence: the delay in consumer access to generics translates into significant financial losses not only for the patients themselves but also for Social Security paid by the State (that is, the taxpayers). This, in addition, offers arguments to the defenders of the privatization of the Public Health Systems, accused of being pits of deficits in the budget of the States.
Generics are identical drugs, in terms of active ingredients, dosage, pharmaceutical form, safety and efficacy, to the original drugs produced exclusively by the large pharmaceutical monopolies. The exclusivity period, which starts from the moment the product is put up for sale, expires after ten years; But the patent protection of the original drug lasts twenty years. That's when other manufacturers have the right to produce the generics that cost 40% cheaper. The World Health Organization (WHO) and most governments recommend the use of generics because, due to their lower cost, they favor equitable access to health for populations exposed to preventable diseases (2).
The objective of the large pharmaceutical brands is therefore to delay by all possible means the expiration date of the patent protection period; and they manage to patent superfluous additives to the product (a polymorph, a crystalline form, etc.) and thus artificially extend the duration of their control of the drug.
The world drug market represents some 700,000 million euros (3); and a dozen giant companies, including the so-called "Big Pharma" - Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Merck, Novartis, Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi-Aventis - control half of that market. Its benefits are higher than those obtained by the powerful groups of the military-industrial complex. For every euro invested in the manufacture of a brand name drug, monopolies earn a thousand in the market (4). And three of those firms, GSK, Novartis and Sanofi, are set to earn billions of euros more in the coming months thanks to the massive sales of the new influenza A (H1N1) virus vaccine (5).
These gigantic masses of money give "Big Pharma" an absolutely colossal financial power. Which they use in particular to ruin, through multiple millionaire trials in court, the modest generic manufacturers. Its innumerable lobbies also permanently harass the European Patent Office (EPO), whose headquarters are in Munich, to delay the granting of authorizations to enter the market for generics. They also launch deceptive campaigns about these bioequivalent drugs and scare patients. The result is that, according to the recent Report published by the European Commission, citizens have had to wait, on average, seven months longer than normal to access generics, which in the last five years has resulted in a Unnecessary overspending of around 3,000 million euros for consumers and a 20% increase for Public Health Systems.
The offensive of the pharmaceutical-industrial monopolies has no borders. Since Honduras joined ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of America), in August 2008, Manuel Zelaya had negotiated a commercial agreement with Havana to import Cuban generics, in order to reduce the operating costs of Honduran public hospitals . In addition, at the Summit on June 24, the Presidents of ALBA promised to "review the doctrine on industrial property", that is, the intangibility of patents on drugs. These two projects, which directly threatened their interests, prompted the transnational pharmaceutical groups to strongly support the coup movement that would overthrow Zelaya on June 28 (6).
Likewise, Barack Obama, eager to reform the US healthcare system that leaves 47 million citizens without medical coverage, is facing the wrath of the pharmaceutical-industrial complex. Here, the sums at stake are gigantic (health expenditures represent the equivalent of 18% of GDP) and are controlled by a vigorous lobby of private interests that brings together, in addition to the "Big Pharma", the large insurance companies and everything the private clinics and hospitals sector. None of these actors want to lose their opulent privileges. For this reason, relying on the most conservative mainstream media and the Republican Party, they are spending tens of millions of dollars on disinformation and slander campaigns against the necessary reform of the health system.
It is a crucial battle. And it would be dramatic if the drug mafias won it. Because then they would redouble their efforts to attack, in Europe and in the rest of the world, the deployment of generic drugs and the hope of less expensive and more supportive health systems.
Ignacio Ramonet - Le Monde Diplomatique - September 2009. Number 167
(1) http://ec.europa.eu/comm/competition/sectors/ pharmaceuticals / inquiry / index.html
(2) 90% of the expenses of the large pharmaceutical industry for the development of new drugs is destined to diseases that only 10% of the world population suffers.
(3) Intercontinental Marketing Services (IMS) Health, March 19, 2009.
(4) Carlos Machado, "The pharmaceutical mafia. The remedy is worse than the disease", March 5, 2007 (www.ecoportal.net/content/view/full/67184).
(5) Read, Ignacio Ramonet, "The culprits of swine flu", Le Monde diplomatique in Spanish, June 2009.
(6) Central American Social Observatory, June 29, 2009