With the provisional deadline for Cambodia’s accession to the World Trade Organization fast approaching in September, health officials are anxiously reviewing the country’s patent laws to ensure they are strong enough to safeguard access to the cheapest forms of essential drugs.
Critics of the WTO have charged that membership in the organization chokes off the supply of cheap, generic drugs to poor countries to protect the patents of pharmaceutical companies in wealthier nations. But that does not have to be the case in Cambodia, health officials said Sunday—as long as the country’s laws protect its cheap drug supply.
“If you word it properly in your laws, [access to drugs] should not be a problem,” said Richard Veerman, head of mission of Medecines Sans Frontieres Belgium. “The ball is really in the hands of the Cambodian government.”
The most worrying aspect for health providers here is the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement, health officials said at a workshop in Phnom Penh Thursday on the WTO’s impact on the health system.
The provision, which all countries joining the organization must ratify, limits the ability of countries that cannot make their own drugs to import cheaper generic versions from nations that patent their pharmaceuticals.
A 2001 conference of member nations in Doha, Qatar, concluded that the provision should not be interpreted to harm public health. It was not until August 2003, however, that countries decided how to ensure poor countries received their drugs while satisfying patent protection demands from powerful pharmaceutical companies in countries like the US.
Under the Doha agreement, least-developed countries like Cambodia are exempted from drug patent laws until 2016.
In 2016, Cambodia will need to review its laws again to prepare it for the influx of patented drugs in its markets. But until then, Cambodia must structure its laws to ensure that its interpretation of TRIPS does not open loopholes that might block its access to cheap generics, before the country’s scheduled adoption of the provision on Jan 1, 2007.
“If we don’t care enough about this, it means a poor country like Cambodia will have to use expensive drugs,” said Chroeng Sokhan, vice director of the Health Ministry’s Department of Drugs and Food.
As an example of the need to protect the availability of generics, he said, the generic antiretroviral drugs that Cambodia imports from South Africa cost $180 for a one-year supply. A year’s regimen of brand-name drugs in Europe can cost up to $10,000.
“These impacts affect human rights, in particular the right to receive medical treatment for the people most in need,” Tea Kim Chhay, director of the Food and Drug Department, said at Thursday’s conference.
Cambodia had received “pressure” from certain countries—he did not want to name them—to implement patent protection before 2016, Chroeng Sokhan said. However, “we want to keep it until 2016,” he said last week. “I don’t think Cambodia will become a developed country [before then]. This may need 10, 20 years more.”
The good news for Cambodia is that, with only some minor tweaking, the current patent laws should be strong enough to protect its generic drug supply until 2016, said Pamela Messervy, program management officer with the World Health Organization.
“The patent law is fine and they really don’t need to do anything to change that,” Messervy said Sunday.
The Doha exemption, along with Cambodia’s own law that prohibits patents for pharmaceuticals until 2016, buys Cambodia more than a decade before it has to open its drug markets to patented manufacturers.
But Ung Phyrun, secretary of state for the Ministry of Health warned of the consequences of TRIPS.
“Although social economics may arise from patent protection through discovery of new drugs, the TRIPS standards may have a great impact on the health sector and may negatively affect the access of drugs in developing and least-developed countries,” he said.