Letter from 56 non-profits and experts to Secretary of State John Kerry on pressure on global access to medicines initiatives

20 July 2016
For Immediate Release

Knowledge Ecology International: Zack Struver, zack.struver@keionline.org, +1 (202) 332-2670
Public Citizen: Peter Maybarduk, pmaybarduk@citizen.org, +1 (202) 588-7755

Public Health, Human Rights, and Faith Organizations Question State Department Pressure Against Global Access to Medicines Initiatives

Evidence shows pattern of interference in national and international efforts to improve access to affordable medicines, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF USA), Knowledge Ecology International, Public Citizen, Oxfam, and other leading public interest groups.

Washington, DC — More than 50 public interest organizations and experts asked Secretary of State John Kerry today to explain evidence that the State Department recently pressured the United Nations and the governments of Colombia and India against taking action to improve access to affordable medicines, citing U.S. business interests and implying that relations with Washington would suffer.

The groups outlined their concerns in a letter that addressed a pattern of U.S. pressure against developing countries challenging the monopoly pricing of patented medicines by pharmaceutical corporations. In particular, the groups asked Secretary Kerry to explain whether the use of pressure on access to medicines issues is consistent with U.S. policy and priorities.

“Far too often, State Department actions have contradicted the official U.S. policy position of respecting countries’ rights to promote access to affordable medicines. It’s time for Secretary Kerry and State to stop interfering with countries taking legitimate actions to promote their people’s health,” said Steven Knievel, campaign coordinator at Public Citizen.

The 56 organizations and experts signing the letter included the AFL-CIO, Health Action International, Health Global Access Project (Health GAP), Knowledge Ecology International, Doctors Without Borders (MSF USA), NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, OXFAM, the Presbyterian Church (USA), Public Citizen, and Universities Allied for Essential Medicines.

The letter dealt with the recent pressure from the U.S. government against moves to lower the price of a leukemia drug in Colombia, the patent system in India — which is known as the “pharmacy for the developing world” — and a United Nations high level panel tasked by the Secretary-General with evaluating the conflict between drug prices and access to medicines.

Following months of pressure from the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whittaker recently remarked that the government of Colombia should “consult” with the United States government before using its widely recognized authority under international law to authorize competition or otherwise lower the price for the Novartis-marketed leukemia drug Glivec (imatinib), which is sold at a price that is twice the average Colombian income. The organizations expressed “dismay” over Ambassador Whittaker’s remarks, “which were interpreted, in Colombia and elsewhere, as unwanted interference with a domestic dispute over the price of a drug sold by the Swiss corporation.”

The letter was also critical of the State Department for its submission to the United Nations Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Access to Medicines (HLP), which is tasked with evaluating the policy conflicts between high drug prices and access to medicines, in which the U.S. described the panel’s mandate to explore that topic as a “critical flaw.” Describing the U.S. submission’s denial of any policy incoherence, the letter noted that “[s]uch a sentiment is out of touch with the reality faced every day by patients.”

“We are deeply concerned by the United States government’s increasingly obstructionist stance on issues of access to medicines globally,” said Judit Rius Sanjuan, US Access Campaign manager and legal policy advisor at Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres. “The US is almost single-handedly trying to undermine an unprecedented global effort to try to solve the crisis in drug prices and research and development currently unfolding at the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Access to Medicines at the United Nations. It is also increasingly threatening India and other developing countries with trade and political sanctions for actions that try to strike a balance between innovation and drug affordability. The US is using its influence to try to export its failed pricing and intellectual property laws that have caused a crisis in drug pricing and have hindered research and development.”

The letter also highlighted a campaign of misinformation about international intellectual property rules, designed to pressure India — the “pharmacy for the developing world” — to expand the grant of monopolies on pharmaceutical products. The letter noted the close connections between the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and U.S. industry representatives.

“Secretary Kerry is playing a key role in bullying developing countries over drug patents,” said James Love, the Director of Knowledge Ecology International. “His actions are not consistent with our international commitments to promote access to medicine for all, and they contribute to anti-U.S. sentiment. This is an important issue, as the lives of millions of persons are impacted negatively by U.S. advocacy for high drug prices.”