POSTSCRIPT / December 18, 2007 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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House debate heats up on cheaper drugs bill

LOBBY AT WORK: The average Pinoy cannot see through the legalese of the various “cheaper medicine” bills in Congress and decide which version will benefit poor patients and which one will fatten further the giant drugs companies.

Caught in the confusing exchange, the public has been reduced to relying on the good faith and sincerity of the proponents of the various versions and amendments.

Sub-rosa, the well-oiled lobby of the multinational drug firms has been tightening their stranglehold on the market via legislation. Only they and conniving lawmakers know the loopholes they have woven into the bill.

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ROXAS BILL: The Senate has passed its version of the quality and cheaper medicine bill, sponsored principally by Sen. Mar Roxas. The chamber is awaiting the House version which is still being dissected and debated to death.

“Debated to death” is descriptive of the fate the bill suffered in the previous Congress. With the lobby at work, the cheaper medicine measure died when adjournment caught it still in the grip of dilatory tactics and lack of quorum.

This time around, the public is being treated to the side show of Cebucongressman Pablo Garcia ostensibly digging in for a one-man stand against its passage. Imagine one man holding at bay 200 or so congressmen!

But in the Venetian circus, a spectator cannot readily make out what is true or false.

Is it true, for instance, that Iloilo congressman Ferjenel Biron, the primary author of the House bill, is president of the Philippine Pharmawealth Inc. and Pharmawealth Laboratories Inc. engaged in drug manufacturing and sale?

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FALSE HOPES: Garcia is now disabusing the public mind of accusations that he has been blocking legislation giving access to cheaper medicine. He said his intention is just to refine the bill to make it “more meaningful and effective.”

He warned that the law should not “raise false hopes among our people, especially the poor and, worse, perpetuate the monopoly and stranglehold of the multinationals over the drug industry.”

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CRISIS CONDITION: To illustrate, Garcia explained that under the Intellectual Property Code, which the Senate version seeks to amend, the government can produce or import a medicine without the consent of the patent holder “when the public interest, particularly on security, health, nutrition or development as determined by a government agency, requires it.”

“Mysteriously,” he said, “there is a proposed amendment to the IPC forbidding government use or exploitation of a patent for drugs or medicines unless there is a declaration of a state of national emergency, thereby making it more difficult for the government to use the patent.”

He noted that the same authority is granted to a third person under the “compulsory licensing” provision of the IPC.

Garcia said: “This amendment will benefit the multinational patent holder, because he can now object to the government use of its patent unless there is first a declaration of a state of national emergency.”

“I want this condition deleted, because the present provisions of the IPC will suffice to authorize government use or exploitation of the patent,” he explained.

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EVERGREENING: Garcia wants another amendment eliminating “ever-greening,” the practice of extending the patent of a drug by simply adding some slight changes to its substance and representing the resulting product as a new formulation.

“The sponsoring committee will not accept my amendment, to the delight of the multinational patent holder,” Garcia complained.

The congressman also objected to the insertion of an amendment to the IPC binding the government to comply with the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health adopted by the WTO ministerial conference of 2001 in Doha, Qatar.

It was not clear why the congressman did not like the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Agreement, which gives signatories more flexibility in handling patents rights for better access to essential medicine.

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SUPERBODY: Garcia is also objecting to the creation by the House bill of a “bureaucratic superbody to be known as the Drug Price Regulation Board.” This provision is not found in the Senate version.

“Aside from its doubtful constitutionality,” he said, “this is a duplication of the Price Act which already includes essential drugs and medicines in its regulatory powers.”

“If this superbody has the exclusive and absolute power to fix the maximum retail prices of drugs and medicine sold in the country (and this includes patented drugs), then we do not have to amend the Intellectual Property Code,” he said.

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EARLY GENERICS: The Roxas bill, approved last Nov. 5 on third reading, disallows the grant of patents for new uses of previously patented medicine. It also allows parallel importation of medicine by blocking patent and trademark infringement suits.

The bill allows makers of generic drugs to start early copying of medicine whose patents are about to expire. But marketing and sales will be allowed only after expiration of the patent.

The present rule is for them to copy only after the expiration of the patent. It usually takes two to three years after expiration before a generic is determined to be “bio-equivalent.” Allowing early copying will cut this delay

The bill eliminates long adversarial process to allow government use of patents based on mere public interest. Under the present situation, it usually takes six to eight years before government is able to use patents.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 18, 2007)

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