Fr Shay Cullen on 'the challenge of conscience' for drug companies

 Last week another mini drug store called in Filipino 'Botika Natin,' our drug store, opened here. It is now number 161 of these community based outlets for ultra low cost medicines for the poor. The project, another form of Fair Trade, makes low cost generic medications available in remote villages and poor urban communities and they are the salvation of many poor family. The not-for-profit organization buys generic drugs in bulk at low cost and sells it to the poor at cost. It is the latest effort by community leaders to fight the spiraling cost of medicines by multinationals that allow the rich to live but the poor to die. A paracetamol tablet costs Pesos 2.50 at the commercial drug store but at the Botika it's only .50 centavos. This is the shocking truth; pharmaceutical companies that charge astronomical prices for very basic medicines could save millions of lives but don't. They control the patients on many life saving drugs and are money making machines profiting from human suffering and death. It's a business based on greed rather than serving mankind and warring against pain, disability, suffering and death. Millions of children die every year because their parents can't afford the life saving drugs. The vastly wealthy pharmaceutical companies are lobbying in the Philippine Congress to block legislation that would allow the importation of low cost life saving drugs. It would also prohibit the extension of a patient by making a slight modification and claiming it is a new drug. The proposed amendment to the Intellectual Property Code would put essential drugs within reach of the poor and save lives. The Pharmaceutical and Health Care Association of the Philippines (PHCA) is claiming that by allowing importation of generic copies of expensive branded medicines a flood of fake drugs into the country would follow. In fact the opposite is true. The reason why fake drug makers thrive is because of the exorbitant cost of the branded drugs. The generic copies are less than half the price and sometimes lower by up to 300%. The lobbying of PHCA was of no avail in the Philippine Senate. The law passed unanimously a few weeks ago, 20 votes for, none opposed. It has yet to pass the congress. Fakes are only a problem because they can earn big profits. However if generic copies of drugs are easily available everywhere at low cost like in the Botika Nation project, then the counterfeiters would have no market. They would soon stop making the fakes. This is the argument of Vice Governor Ramon Lacbain the driving force behind the Botika Natin project. He and his team of qualified pharmacists travel from village to village to establish new outlets every week as part of the work of the Zambales War Against Poverty Foundation of which the Preda Director, Alex Hermoso, is a board member and avid supporter. Each small Botika is set up in a small village or neighborhood grocery store called a sari-sari store. The long frequent trips to the town to buy medicine is thus eliminated, another big saving for the poor. The generic low cost medicines not made in the Philippines could be imported from India and Thailand. These countries have less strict copyright laws when it comes to life giving medicines. The pharmaceutical corporations can well afford to have competition. In 2002, they had 83 percent of earnings for the sale of medicine in the Philippines, a market worth US$1.75 billion. The drug companies claim that the huge prices are necessary to recover the costs in the research and development of the drug. Critics say they recover that many times over after only a few years of sales. Legislators say that public health is a greater good than the profits of the multinationals and judges have ruled that certain copyright patients on medicines that have expired cannot be renewed on the pretext of a slight modification by the pharmaceutical corporation that made them. The Philippine law that passed the Senate says the same. Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical company is fighting in an Indian high court to have such a decision by a lower court overruled. The battle to protect the common good, the welfare of the poor and the health of the nation is at stake and many a corporate conscience too. For more information see: www.preda.org