Affordable medicines for Kenyans at risk

"We cannot let a handful of WTO members yield to industry pressure and cripple developing countries' access to life-saving medicines," states Christa Cepuch, MSF.
Nairobi - Kenya must act to prevent reversal of public health policy gains made under the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health in 2001. In ongoing negotiations in Tokyo this week, the WTO is discussing a deal that could severely limit Kenya's access to affordable medicines. Action Aid Kenya, MSF and EcoNews Africa strongly urge Kenyan negotiators to reject the TRIPS Council chairman's proposal to restrict use of compulsory licensing for many developing countries to "national emergencies or other circumstances of extreme urgency". "Here in Kenya we have made great progress in decreasing the cost of drugs for many diseases - not just for HIV/AIDS, but for other major public health problems like pneumonia and diarrhoeal diseases that kill thousands of Kenyans every year," explains Dr Christopher Ouma, Action Aid Kenya. "The cost of some life-saving drugs has been decreased by as much as half. But if this current proposal goes through at the WTO, all these gains will be lost." According to the Doha declaration, countries are allowed to issue compulsory licenses to access affordable generic versions of drugs that they need to tackle a public health problem. But some countries don't have the capacity to make their own drugs, and the compulsory license system is limited to the supply of the domestic market. The current WTO negotiations aim at solving the question of where these countries will be able to obtain affordable sources of the essential medicines they need. Bowing to industry pressure, several WTO members are trying to restrict the terms of the agreement. The current proposal is to limit the use of compulsory licensing to "national emergencies or other circumstances of extreme urgency". "Wealthy countries do not have to declare national emergencies to make use of TRIPS safeguards, so why should Kenya and other developing countries have to do so", says Oduor Ong'wen, EcoNews Africa. "Will African countries have to declare tuberculosis or malaria a national emergency in order to get affordable drugs?" "The adoption of the TRIPS Council chairman's proposal would mean that countries without the possibility to produce medicines are at a major disadvantage over countries that do have the capacity", explains Robert Lettington. "In theory, they could issue a compulsory licence to address any public health problem; but in practice, they will only be able to get supplies of the medicines if they declare a national emergency. Countries like Kenya would have to wait for a public health problem to spin out of control before they can use this solution to address it." Although Kenya has significant pharmaceutical industrial capacity, it is not always technically or economically feasible for all of its essential drugs to be manufactured at home. For this reason it is essential that Kenya retains the right to import affordable drugs. Like other WTO members with a pharmaceutical industry, such as India and Brazil, Kenya would also be restricted in its ability to export - it would only be able to sell generic pharmaceuticals to countries who have declared a national emergency. This dangerous limitation could have a major impact on Kenya's pharmaceutical industry options for future development. In negotiations last year, the US had already tried to limit the agreement to a set list of diseases. This was unacceptable, and Kenya and other developing countries rightly rejected the notion. This current bid by the TRIPS Council chairman to restrict the agreement to national emergencies would be a far worse outcome. We urge Kenya to stand firm on this issue and reject the Chairman's proposal. Kenya has a key role to play in convincing other members of the Africa group to reject the Chairman's reference to emergencies and any other attempt to limit the terms of the agreement. "We cannot let a handful of WTO members yield to industry pressure and cripple developing countries' access to life-saving medicines," states Christa Cepuch, Médecins Sans Frontières.