Pact Paves Way for Lower-Cost Medicines

In a step toward developing a fairer system for distributing needed—but expensive—medicines, the Minister of Health has signed an international declaration that calls for the production of generic versions of patented drugs.

The joint declaration of the Non-Aligned Movement, a collection of countries formed during the Cold War standoff between the US and the former USSR, was signed by 33 countries at a conference in South Africa last month.

The declaration allows Cam­bodia to import brand name drugs from countries where they are sold at lower prices—ultimately decreasing the price in Cambodia—and to issue licenses to produce cheaper versions of patented drugs.

“We agree that those companies should think about the patients and the poor people and not just the company,” Minister of Health Hong Sun Huot said.

The Minister had no further com­ment on the declaration, which seemingly clears the way for the country to license a private company to produce cheap generic versions of expensive medicines.

It’s not clear what effect the declaration will have, if any, on the announced plans of an Indian company to sell generic versions of the AIDS drugs to an NGO working in Cambodia.

Hong Sun Huot said only that AIDS drugs should be available within the year.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has been slowed, sometimes for years, by a triple-drug therapy of stavudine, lamivudine and nevirapine. None of Cipla’s drugs have been approved yet for distribution in Cambodia.

The private companies that own the patents on the drugs bowed to strong public pressure recently to sell the drugs at deep discounts in Third World countries, where the drugs’ cost of $10,000 to $15,000 a year would  be too much for patients to pay.

“Ethically it’s unacceptable that people in developing countries don’t have access to medicines that can improve their quality of life,” said Dr Henk Bekedam, a World Health Organization adviser to the Ministry of Health.

Bekedam said more hurdles remain in distributing drugs for AIDS, tuberculosis and other catastrophic illnesses in Cambodia. Even if the drug prices are re­duced, they could still be too expensive for the health care system in Cambodia, where the health budget was just $2.10 per capita last year. Then there’s the problem of distribution.

“The conversation hasn’t stopped just when you make drugs cheap and available,” Bekedam said.

The declaration was signed by the health ministers of 33 countries, including Botswana, Ango­la, Iran, Nigeria, Indonesia and Cuba.



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