News Release

The Bird Flu Threat: Public Health Vs. Pharmaceutical Profits


Co-director of Essential Action, Weissman said today: “President Bush has belatedly announced a program to expand modestly the U.S. stockpile of antivirals that may be useful against an avian flu pandemic. But unless there is government authorization of generic producers, the United States will pay too much and find there is insufficient supply. Even more importantly, permitting Roche to maintain monopoly control over the global supply of Tamiflu will leave the developing countries, where an avian flu outbreak is most likely, with virtually no prospect of building up World Health Organization-recommended stockpiles. Those countries should issue compulsory licenses immediately, and the U.S. should give its blessing.”

Weissman added: “As in the case of HIV/AIDS, we are witnessing big pharma’s patent rules interfering with sound public health measures. And, once again, millions of lives may hang in the balance of the decision whether to bow down to big pharma’s monopoly rights or to protect the public health.”
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Executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, Zeitz said today: “America cannot protect itself without investing in global public health. … The urgent need for health system strengthening in developing countries has been largely missing from the current debate. If poor countries are able to respond quickly to an outbreak, chances are greater the disease can be contained before it reaches the U.S. … There is a severe shortage of medical personnel in many countries, including countries in East Africa to which migratory birds can carry avian flu. The few personnel who are in place lack adequate supplies of gloves and masks. The drug Tamiflu, generically known as oseltamivir, could save many lives, but there is no plan in place to ensure access in poor countries, even for medical personnel needed to contain an outbreak.”
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Peter Stoett is professor of international relations at the Department of Political Science at Concordia University. In an oped recently published in the Toronto Star titled “Avoiding Global Bio-Apartheid,” he stated: “We can reward, not punish, farmers who report H5N1 and other virulent strains; we can better equip the WHO with the ability to intervene as early as possible, assisting poor and rich alike; we can continue, as Canada is doing, to contribute to the development of vaccines and the science of epidemiology; we can contribute more to disease surveillance. … Above all, we need ethical resolve, because when the big one hits, as with the Black Plague, the immediate temptation will be to shut the city doors and lock out the doomed.”
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Love is director of the Consumer Project on Technology and the author of a recent oped in the Financial Times titled “A Better Way of Stockpiling Emergency Medicines.” Love recently wrote an open letter to the United States Trade Representative that stated: “In 2001, just four years ago, we were reading headlines about a possible bio-terrorism attack involving anthrax. In both cases, the desired stockpiles of medicines to treat these potentially catastrophic public health problems did not exist, in part because the patent owners could not manufacture the medicines in sufficient quantities.

“In 2001, then Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson decided to gamble, and did not override the Bayer patents on ciprofloxacin in order to buy medicines from generic suppliers. As a consequence, the U.S. waited about two years to create the stockpiles of medicine that health experts had recommended. Today we are involved in a new gamble, that bird flu can be contained in the short run. Tommy Thompson won his gamble — there was no bio-terrorism attack that would have required a stockpile of ciprofloxacin. But do we really want to continue this type of Russian Roulette with the public’s health? … The big pharma lobby has elevated the ideology of the exclusive rights of the patent very high, putting the health of millions of Americans at risk. This is a mistake, and should be corrected.”
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Baker is an expert on international patent law with Health GAP. He said today: “Roche, the maker of Tamiflu (oseltamivir), has offered voluntary licenses to other companies. … [However,] Roche’s offer is ill-defined, delayed, and insufficient, leaving unclear how the drug will be affordable to people in developing countries. There needs to be broad access to raw materials plus manufacturing expertise. In addition, the U.S. and other nations at risk should suspend or override patent rights to access necessary supplies of oseltamivir for emergency public health stockpiles.”

For more information, contact at the Institute for Public Accuracy:
Sam Husseini, (202) 347-0020, (202) 421-6858; or David Zupan, (541) 484-9167