Human rights vs. patent monopolies on medicines in Greece

Human rights VS Patent Monopolies on medicines

Written by Mr. Panayotis Kouroublis, Greek MP, SYRIZA parliamentary representative

Published at on 3 May 2014


“Diseases such as cancer are considered urgent only when the patient is in the final stage” according to the Greek Minister of Health Adonis Georgiadis in the “Wall Street Journal”. This is the response of the Ministry of Health in relation to the uninsured cancer patients who are forced to discontinue their treatment because they cannot afford it. The blatant cynicism displayed by the government is not only due to the dogmatic faith of the Greek government in the agreements with the Troika but also due to the government’s incapacity to effectively address a series of problems. Minister Georgiadis stresses that there is no room for flexibility in the austerity measures. Nevertheless, solutions  are feasible and are foreseen by international law. Most importantly, these have already been implemented by other European countries.


The WTO TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement enables a country facing an emergency to issue a compulsory license for products protected by copyright. If Greece decided to use this legal provision, it could obtain anticancer and other drugs at much cheaper prices while bypassing, in an entirely legitimate manner, the patents held by multinationals. Compulsory licensing has been used in numerous countries including Germany, Italy and the USA. This solution should be taken into account by the Greek government which nonetheless refuses to examine it, despite its proven efficacy. Another solution that is worth considering would be the collective supply of medicines (pooled procurement) by several EU member states joining forces. If Greece decided to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies together with other countries of southern Europe; it could obtain much cheaper prices for much-needed medicines.


The current government is accountable to the Greek people because of its persistent refusal to take advantage of the considerable flexibility provided by the European and international context as regards the supply and procurement of drugs. This is the least, a responsible leadership should have done in view of the humanitarian crisis, the country is faced with. For SYRIZA; the political force fighting for the peoples of Europe and not the multinationals, the bar stands even higher. As a leading opposition party in a country found at the heart of the European financial  crisis;  SYRIZA’s leader, a candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission will strive to  broaden the scope for a different Europe. SYRIZA must question the overall status quo of pharmaceutical research funding, which results in the exclusion of millions of patients from health care to the benefit of some big pharmaceutical companies.

Funding for research into new drugs based on intellectual property creates legal monopolies that favour the companies that have developed these drugs. In essence , the company that owns the patent of a drug is the only one entitled to sell it and it can do so at any price it wishes. Big pharmaceuticals argue that this is the only way to meet the high costs of research and development. The truth is that the cost of R&D constitutes a very small percentage of the  total cost of developing a new medicine. In other words, expensive price tags are a way for profiteering for big companies while putting human lives at risk. It is indicative that prices of anticancer drugs have doubled over the last decade; despite angry reactions by doctors and patients’ associations .


The current patent system results in prohibitive costs for patients as well as in a huge waste for healthcare providers. It most importantly raises a wall between the drugs and those who need them the most. It has additional side effects: such as the development of drugs with questionable efficacy, the encouragement of agreessive and misleading  promotional practices on behalf of major pharmaceuticals and the obstruction of the development of new, better and affordable drugs. On the whole; the present system of the financing of medical innovation is manifestly unfair, wasteful, ineffective and undermines the right to health of Greeks and Europeans.


The goal should be to “delink” the incentives for research and development from the high prices of patented originator drugs. This can be achieved by setting up a fund for rewarding pharmaceutical innovation to which EU Member States will contribute.This Fund will reward research efforts of private and public entities driven by health outcomes with a view to promoting further research for the benefit of patients. This way companies will be compensated for the costs of research, while the medicinal products will be available in free competition with generics.  To this end, drug approval will be under the strict supervision of European and national authorities to ensure the quality .


This is something not unheard of. Under pressure from patients’ associations , health professionals and activists, such proposals have long been discussed at the World Health Organization and the U.S. Congress. The proposed system is much fairer providing a) lower prices and access to life-saving treatments while b) reducing costs for healthcare providers. Finally, it is far more efficient, since it seeks to serve real health needs and not artificial ones created by companies’ marketing strategies.


Europe must prioritise the right of patients to the drugs they need over the right of companies to a monopoly. Today, it is more pertinent than ever. In today’s Greece, where patients literally fight for their lives; their call should be heard across Europe; human rights are more important than multintionals’ intellectual property rights.


Health is the most critical, but not the only sector where large companies impose their rule by force of intellectual property rights. In recent years the proliferation of IPR in many unrelated fields, from seed growers to software developers and from cultural projects to any kind of scientific achievements; the product of human creativity is captured by large companies using IPR monopolies. Society is thus deprived from the most valuable good in the era of information: free access to knowledge.


Proponents of strict patents laws overlook the fact that in science, as in arts, there is no parthenogenesis. The essence of human progress is to copy and modify previous works in order to improve them. Moreover, major scientific achievements rarely are the result of profit-oriented research. These are most often achieved ??by individuals or groups with humanitarian motives experimenting freely with the works of their predecessors. The global free software community that produces innovative and reliable products pro bono capitalizing on existing knowledge without restrictions is another tangible proof. The same was true in the 17th century when Sir Isaac Newton gave credit to Galileo and Kepler, saying : “If I saw farther , it is because I stepped on the shoulders of giants.”


Large multinationals attempt to go against the tide of the dynamism we experience today by trying to control, manipulate and direct intellectual property through legislation. During the ongoing negotiations for the new Transatlantic Free Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement (TTIP), the EU should stay away from instituionalising the demands of industry. There should be a new set of rules which will foster innovation and creativity where access to knowledge will be governed by the principles of freedom, justice and equity .