US action at WTO threatens Brazil's successful Aids programme

Press release: Geneva, February 1, 2001 - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is calling upon the United States government to withdraw its request for a WTO dispute settlement procedure on the Brazilian patent law. The US has brought a complaint before the WTO Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) in Geneva, requesting measures that might handicap the successful Brazilian AIDS programme, which is largely based on Brazil's ability to manufacture affordable treatment.

In particular, the US is opposing Brazil's system for granting compulsory licences, a government's right to override patents in certain circumstances.

"The US complaint threatens the Brazilian AIDS policy, which includes providing free drugs to HIV infected people. The lives of hundreds of thousands of patients depend on this system," says Bernard Pécoul, director of MSF's Access to Essential Medicines campaign. "The US action will also intimidate countries which would like to take up Brazil's offer to help them produce AIDS medicines."

MSF supports the call made by more than 120 Brazilian non-governmental organisations to safeguard the country's HIV/AIDS treatment programme, which has been internationally lauded. The Brazilian government is currently treating over 90,000 HIV/AIDS patients with antiretroviral (ARV) therapy, which has decreased AIDS deaths by 50% since the policy was introduced.

It has also significantly improved the quality of life of people living with AIDS, and saved the government an estimated US$ 422 million in hospitalisation and medical care costs averted from 1997 to 1999. A key factor in the success of this programme is the free distribution of ARV drugs, many of which are manufactured domestically by Brazilian companies. Generic production has led to a dramatic fall in the prices of ARV's available in the country.

The Brazilian intellectual property law of 1996 requires the patent holder to manufacture the product in Brazil. If this does not happen, the government can issue a compulsory license to another producer, unless the patent holder can show that local production is not feasible.

The Brazilian patent policy has been key to the success of the strategies to offer universal access to HIV/AIDS medication in Brazil. Brazil has offered assistance to other developing countries to develop similar antiretroviral production facilities at national or regional level.

Médecins Sans Frontières is an independent humanitarian medical relief agency actively campaigning for access to essential medicines.