Pressure on drug giants over patents

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Series Details Vol.7, No.7, 22.2.01, p13
Publication Date 22/02/2001
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Date: 22/02/01

By Simon Taylor

THE success of anti-globalisation protestors in halting the World Trade Organisation talks in Seattle gave them new courage to attack the political power of multinational companies.

As a result, corporations find themselves facing a new challenge: dealing with informed and often costly public criticism.

Consider pharmaceutical companies. Despite their multibillion-euro earnings and the arcane nature of scientific research and intellectual property law, megaplayers like GlaxoSmithKline and Aventis have seen their most valuable assets - patents - come under threat.

Anti-poverty campaigner Oxfam is the latest group to put firms under pressure with its "Cut the Cost" crusade, which singled out GlaxoSmithKline in calling for ways to help developing countries afford life-saving drugs.

Oxfam argues that despite safeguards which enable governments to secure cheap supplies of drugs, rich nations such as the US are using the WTO rules to erode developing countries' rights. For instance, the US recently took action in the WTO against Brazil for alleged infringements of patent laws.

The European pharmaceutical lobby argues that it is not opposed to compulsory purchasing rules, which allow countries to market cheaper versions of patent-protected drugs, but claim the provision does not offer "tailor-made solutions" to healthcare problems and may not deliver cost savings to the end-consumer.

The intellectual property rights debate is complex and it is difficult for non-experts to see who is right about the implications of rules agreed in Geneva. But media attention on patent law and its effects on the world's poorest people present firms with a new challenge if they want to show that their business is legitimate.

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