T

he Colombian health minister was warned directly last month by Colombian Embassy officials in Washington D.C. to reconsider plans to sidestep a Novartis drug patent over concerns the US government would rethink its support for a peace initiative and trade treaty, according to a newly disclosed letter.

The warning was one of two missives sent last month by the Colombian Embassy just days after Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria 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.

As we reported previously, the plan to issue a license, which is designed to save Colombia about $12 million annually, angered Novartis and prompted both the Senate Finance Committee and the US Trade Representative to seek meetings with Colombian embassy officials to express their concerns.

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The flare-up is the latest example of an ongoing 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 compulsory licenses are necessary and, moreover, are permitted under terms of a World Trade Agreement.

The issue over the Novartis patent in Colombia, however, also shows signs of becoming a heated diplomatic dispute.

In an April 28 letter, Andres Florez, the deputy chief of mission at the Colombia Embassy in Washington D.C., wrote to Gaviria following a meeting between embassy officials and Everett Eissenstat, the chief international trade counsel for the Senate Finance Committee. The tone and content are very similar to a letter Florez sent the day before to Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin.

Eissenstat “mentioned that although Novartis is not an American company, the US pharmaceutical industry is very worried by the fact that such a case might become a precedent that could be applied for any patent in any industry,” Florez wrote. “This, according to him, could tarnish Colombia’s reputation regarding the respect of intellectual property rights and place Colombia among the countries that would receive a special treatment.”

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“Mr. Eissenstat also mentioned that if the Ministry of Health did not correct this situation, the pharmaceutical industry in the United States and related interest groups could become very vocal and interfere with other interests that Colombia could have in the United States,” he continued.

To that end, Florez mentioned US support for the Paz Colombia initiative. This past February, the Obama administration offered to provide more than $450 million to back peace efforts in Colombia, which waged a long-running battle with Marxist rebels. Florez also cited a free-trade treaty between the two countries, which obligates Colombia to comply with various international trade laws. Colombia is already on the US Trade’s watch list of countries that do an insufficient job of enforcing intellectual property rights.

A spokeswoman for the Colombian embassy wrote us that the embassy does not comment on “internal correspondence.”

A Senate Finance Committee spokeswoman sent us this: “Just like the US Trade Representative’s Office, Finance Committee staff met with Colombian officials and discussed a variety of trade issues, including ensuring adequate intellectual property protections as outlined in numerous trade agreements. The Senate Finance Committee has jurisdiction over international trade policy and staff routinely, like USTR, meets with foreign governments to discuss actions related to trade obligations.”

For its part, Novartis has maintained that compulsory licenses should not be used as a mechanism to force price negotiations and argued that “damaging” precedents could be set. The company also insisted that the price for Gleevec in Colombia is subject to government controls and that generics are available in the country, although patient groups argue that Novartis has thwarted generic availability.

Four years ago, the Colombian government tried to negotiate a lower price for Gleevec, but failed. Patient groups urged the government to issue a license and a committee recently decided that allowing generic versions 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.

“How is it possible that civilized people can tell (someone else) to choose between peace or health?” said Andrea Carolina Reyes of Misión Salud, one of the patient groups that urged the Colombian health minister to pursue a compulsory license. “We feel ashamed by Colombian officials’ response to (the US) intervention.”

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