A group of 15 House Democrats wants United States Trade Representative Michael Froman to explain why his office appeared to pressure Colombia not to sidestep a patent on a Novartis cancer drug. The move is the latest twist in the escalating battle between the global pharmaceutical industry and some governments over intellectual property rights and access to affordable medicines.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Froman, the lawmakers expressed “serious concern” that his staff “may have discouraged” Colombian officials from issuing a compulsory license for the Gleevec medicine. In response to concerns about public health, a country can issue a license so that a generic company can make a brand-name medicine without the consent of the company holding a patent.

The right to issue these licenses was memorialized in a World Trade Agreement, and less than a month ago, Colombia Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria decided to pursue such a license. His move came after a four-year battle in which Novartis had refused to negotiate a lower price and won an exclusive patent on one of two forms of the drug, precluding competition.

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But after Gaviria signaled he would issue a license, staffers from the US Trade Rep and the US Senate Finance Committee earlier this month met with Colombian embassy officials in Washington DC. They told Colombian officials the US government would rethink its $450 million in funding for a peace initiative and a trade treaty, according to letters embassy officials sent to Colombian ministers.

In one letter, a Colombian embassy official wrote that while Novartis is not an American company, the US pharmaceutical industry is “very worried” the Gleevec case may become a precedent. US Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, has close ties to the pharmaceutical industry, and the US Trade Rep had already placed Colombia on its list of countries that does a poor job of enforcing patent rights.

The lawmakers wrote that they found it “deeply troubling” that “US officials may not be respecting” the rights that a country has to issue a compulsory license. They added that they are not aware of any action Colombia has taken that might be inconsistent with WTO rules. And like many consumer advocates, they noted that Gleevec is on the World Health Organization list of essential medicines.

The also pointed out that the annual price of Gleevec in Colombia is “almost twice as much as the average annual income per person in Colombia. As policy makers struggle to address this issue, we should not seek to limit the existing, agreed-upon flexibilities public health authorities have to address these concerns.”

Finally, the lawmakers noted that in his recent annual report, Froman’s staff wrote that the United States “respects its trading partners’ rights to issue compulsory licenses in a manner consistent” with the WTO agreements. They concluded by asking the US Trade Rep to clarify his position. We asked the US Trade Rep for a comment and will update you accordingly.

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