Just how much should an anti-HIV drug cost? What if you're selling it in a place where most of the patients can't afford it? These questions have been fought out in Africa and other parts of the developing world over the last few years (and the stagnating world, too, unfortunately.) Now Brazil may be making good on a threat of outright patent confiscation.
The Brazilian government is unhappy with the price of Abbott's combination therapy, Kaletra (PDF), which they already pay just over $100 million per year for. Mind you, that's the lowest price in the world outside Africa. Online pharmacies claim that the average US retail for Kaletra tablets is about $4.06 each, and they offer it at about $3.60. Brazil's paying $1.17, and they're saying that they'll issue a compulsory license if the price doesn't come down to 68 cents.
They've threatened to do this before, but have never come this close to following through. The worry for Abbott is that once the Brazilian generic companies start making the stuff, it'll end up all over the rest of the world at a base of $0.68/tablet. And where do you think demand for it will be strongest? In the countries where it's already the most expensive, which Abbott is counting on for their profits.
Opinions vary a bit, as you'd figure. You can find no shortage of activists cheering the Brazilians on. To wit, from the AP article linked above:
"We are the hostages of these companies, and compulsory licensing is a defense against the abuse of monopolies," said Jorge Beloqui, the leader of a Sao Paulo-based AIDS support group.
Beloqui, a university math professor, has taken 30,000 anti-AIDS pills provided free by the government since 1991. If Brazil breaks the patent, he says, activists will pressure Brazilian politicians to go a step further and let its generic drug makers produce much more of Abbott's drug so it can be shipped around the world to needy patients.
"These medicines are essential to the world, and I think Brazil should sell them," he said.
Actually, Prof. Beloqui is the hostage of a retrovirus, but his comments seem pretty representative of the "stick it to The Man!" point of view. Well, speaking for The Man (to crib a line from Tom Wolfe), I have to say that Brazil seems to be playing to the galleries here. There are accusations that the country is spending less on anti-HIV medications than it did five years ago, and they turned down $40 million in US money not so long ago. There's another problem, too. Brazil is acting according to WTO language about breaking patents in case of a public health crisis. But you have to wonder
Allowing Brazil to use the "public health crisis" justification creates a dangerous and perverse incentive for governments of the developing world: if you as a government are responsible and work hard to uphold a fiscally manageable public health program, then you will be punished by having to pay for expensive drugs, but if you fail or simply ignore the problem and cry "crisis," then you will be rewarded with permission to trample on intellectual property rights.
I've known some pretty good Brazilian scientists, but the country isn't up to being able to discover and develop its own new ones. (Very few countries are; you can count them on your fingers.) So I've saved my usual justification for last: if Brazil decides to grab an HIV medication that other people discovered, tested, and won approval for, who's going to make the next one for them?