A Colombian Embassy official late last month warned his government that United States backing for a peace initiative may suffer if the Colombian health minister proceeds with plans to sidestep a patent for a Novartis cancer drug.

The warning came just days after the health minister indicated he may issue a so-called compulsory license, which would allow a generic company to make a lower-cost version of the Gleevec leukemia treatment. The move, which would save Colombia about $12 million annually, infuriated Novartis and appears to have triggered concerns in the Obama administration and Congress.

The squabble over a license is only the latest example of the heated clash between the global pharmaceutical industry and some governments over intellectual property rights and access to affordable medicines. Drug makers say patent rights are sometimes trampled on, while consumer groups argue such licenses are needed and, moreover, are memorialized in a World Trade Agreement.

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In an April 27 letter, Andres Florez, the deputy chief of mission at the Colombia Embassy in Washington D.C., wrote to Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin that a license for the Novartis drug “has become a topic of interest for the US Trade Representative and the US Congress.” He added that staffers from the US Senate Finance Committee and US Trade Rep requested meetings with embassy officials.

“Given the direct link that exists between a significant group of members of Congress and the pharmaceutical industry in the United States, the case … is susceptible to escalate to the point that it could impair the approval of the financing of the new initiative, Paz Colombia, as well as become an issue in the framework of the free-trade treaty.”

This past February, the Obama administration offered to provide more than $450 million to back peace initiatives in Colombia, which waged a long-running battle with Marxist rebels. “We’re going to call it Peace Colombia – Paz Colombia,” President Barack Obama said at a White House ceremony alongside Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

A free-trade treaty between the two countries went into effect four years ago, which obligates Colombia to comply with various international trade laws. Florez also cautioned that issuing a compulsory license for the Novartis drug may “weaken support” for bringing Colombia into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact between 12 countries in the Asia and Pacific regions that must still be approved by Congress.

“Given these facts … we think that the national government should assess the measures considered and respond at its best interest to the concerns that have been expressed,” Florez advised the foreign minister. “Likewise, we are of the opinion that it is necessary to take a correction of our course in order to avoid claims against our country.”

A Senate Finance Committee spokeswoman wrote us that “committee staff routinely meets with foreign governments to seek clarifications on actions that may be inconsistent with international trade obligations.”

We asked the US Trade Rep’s office for comment about this latest development and will update you accordingly. Colombia, by the way, is on the US Trade’s watch list of countries that do an insufficient job of enforcing intellectual property rights. As for Novartis, a spokesman writes us to say that the company is “actively seeking a resolution to discussions around our Gleevec patent in Colombia that benefits patients, innovation and the healthcare system.”

One advocacy group criticized what it called US pressure on Colombia.

“It is shameful for anyone to link the outcome of a compulsory license, based on a country’s health needs, to the outcome of a process of peace and reconciliation in a country that has faced unspeakable violence, yet this is raised in the memo,” said Andrew Goldman, legal affairs and policy counsel at Knowledge Ecology International, which released the letter.

“Novartis has profited enough from Colombia, and Senator Orin Hatch (who heads the Senate Finance Committee) and USTR have no business defending the patent interests of a Swiss pharmaceutical company over the lives of cancer patients in Colombia.”

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Four years ago, the Colombian government tried to negotiate a lower price for Gleevec, but failed. After patient groups urged the government to issue a license, a committee recently decided that allowing other companies to make Gleevec would be in the public interest by widening access and saving health care dollars. Consumer groups note that Gleevec is on the World Health Organization list of essential medicines.

As we wrote recently, Novartis objected and argued that a Declaration of Public Interest “should never be used as a mechanism to force price negotiations.” Doing so, the company maintained, “runs counter to the spirit and intent of a compulsory license and its legal framework, and would create a damaging precedent that could apply to all patent-covered innovations — pharmaceutical or otherwise.”

A declaration is “inappropriate as there is no shortage of Gleevec or evidence of other access issues, the price is already subject to government controls, and there is no monopoly with multiple generics already on the market.”

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  • Big pharma bully attorneys messed up during WTO negotiations. Now Pharma has bought the US government and strong arming governments. May be someone should file a lawsuit at The Hague court against big pharma for causing unnecessary deaths because patients cannot purchase their high priced drugs. I am sure some brilliant lawyer can come up with a law suit strategy. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

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