Patents and Profit: Gleevec Price Talks Break Down.
Kim, Dongsook. Coalition for People's Health and an Equitable Society
Source :  Jinbo in Progress #5
The National Health Insurance System Board held talks on September 6 to try decide the retail price of Gleevec, a cancer drug used for treating leukemia, only to end by delaying the talks even further. One year has passed since the problem of Gleevec first arose. Throughout the discussions, the board has not considered the patient's point of view. Many are in desperate need of the medication, and the delay is making the situation worse for those patients who are already impoverished. Neither of the retail prices that the Korean government and the Norvatis Corp. have suggested is encouraging. In addition, patients are left with many extra costs, as the medical insurance system does not cover medical check-ups or hospital stays. The 17,862 won ($15 US) per pill argued by the government and the 23,045 won ($19 US) per pill demanded by the Norvatis Corporation are affordable only for rich patients.
5-Day-Visit to India Brings Hope
The Joint Committee For Solving the Gleevec Problem and Improving Public Health Care's (Gleevec Joint Committee) visit to India has brought back some hope. The committee came back August 30, after observing the production of a generic version of the Gleevec medication. The results from the committee's negotiations with Indian research center will not be disclosed for the time being, but for now there is a possibility of providing the public with a cheaper version of the leukemia medication. Several of the pharmaceutical companies in India are currently involved in a process to get legal approval to sell their generic medications. One of the companies has even offered to sell the medication to Korea for less than one dollar per pill.
The Cost of Gleevec is 20 Times More Expensive Than It Should Be
The research team was able to study the pharmaceutical production facilities for producing the generic Gleevec in India. The Indian companies offer an extremely low cost on their new medication. At one dollar per capsule, it is one-twentieth of what Norvatis Corp. had demanded in March; the Indian price is merely 5% of 24,050 won. What is more surprising is that southeast Asian companies have proved that they can still make profits by selling the pills for one dollar each.
Gleevec, the original medication for treating leukemia, was mostly researched at the Oregon Cancer Center. The Norvatis Corp. benefited with tax cut by 50% in their clinical demonstrations. It is not persuasive for them to use their research costs to justify making Gleevec as expensive as it is now. The main reason for Norvatis Corp. to be insolent enough to demand such a high price is because they hold its patent rights, which grants them a colossal power to monopolize the market when cheaper alternatives could be saving lives.
The State's Responsibility: Patent Rights before Human Rights?
The Gleevec Joint Committee has asked for state's financial aid so that anyone can afford the medication by January. However the Korean government is reluctant to listen to the requests of the general public. Even the Norvatis Corporation has requested the state's support with a similar proposal, only to hear that the government has delayed its answer two times in a row. In other countries, it is natural for governments to stand by their people, especially concerning health problems. The Gleevec Joint Committee and leukemia patients are demanding the state's financial help; meanwhile, the government is refusing to use legal means which could help the patients gain the medication at no cost. For whom does this government belong to and for whom does it exist to protect anyway? In South Korea, there are no public pharmaceutical companies to take over the task of producing and supplying a generic medication for free like there exist other countries. So civic groups such as the Gleevec Joint Committee and the leukemia patients themselves have begun trying to contact companies in India, and are providing the government with detailed steps that they can take to help solve the problem.
The government will not always pursue actions that are legitimate in every field, but it should realize that this problem is not an issue of preventing foreign pharmaceutical corporations from getting richer. This issue is about people who are dying because of a monopolistic patent right that is being illogically enforced over the basic right to life, especially when it has been proven that the drug can be supplied at a profitable price that is 95% less than Novartis's currently suggested one. The government should forcefully support lawful actions by the public and protect patients' rights to live healthfully.
What the national health insurance board has shown us up to now has only discouraged patients. The Korean government has stood idle and acted like a puppet for the Norvatis Corp. while patients are not receiving any help as they endeavor to find a solution by themselves. The Gleevec Joint Committee has already visited India to start an alternative process but there are more pending questions concerning the lawful import of the generic Indian version of Gleevec to Korea.
First, the government should exercise their rights, as other countries have, and allow generic versions of Gleevec to be imported. The Indian pharmaceutical companies want to start selling their medications, and Korean patients want to buy them. Second, people can start a joint movement to remind the government that it should protect people according to health laws, not patent laws. This fight is not only about acquiring medications at fair price for the people, but it is a means to stop the hegemony of monopolistic pharmaceutical firms and protect public health in return.
Last but not least, a joint movement to oppose government's plans will be a show of international solidarity. If the Korean government is persuaded to aid the Korean people, this will show the world that South Korea supports those who struggle against the imperialist globalization of the capital, and, perhaps, trigger further mobilization.
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