Bernie Sanders is the latest lawmaker to chastise United States Trade Representative Michael Froman for pressuring Colombia not to sidestep a patent on a Novartis drug.
In a letter sent Thursday, the presidential aspirant and Sherrod Brown, a Democratic Senator from Ohio, wrote that they find it “unconscionable” that Froman’s staff would attempt to “intimidate” Colombian officials for planning to issue a compulsory license for the Gleevec cancer medicine. And they warn that such actions suggest the US is “elevating corporate profits over public health priorities.”
Earlier this month, staff from both the US Senate Finance Committee and the US Trade Rep’s Office met with Colombian embassy officials in Washington D.C., and told them that issuing such a license might jeopardize $450 million in US funding for a peace effort, as well as backing for a free-trade treaty. The meetings were described in letters that embassy officials sent to Colombian government ministers.
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. And Colombia Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria plans this step because it is in “the public interest,” since Novartis has refused to negotiate a lower price and won an exclusive patent on one of two forms of the drug, precluding competition.
But the meetings at the Colombian embassy have sparked protest from some Democratic lawmakers. Yesterday, 15 House Democrats fired off a letter to Froman to complain. And in their own missive, Sanders and Brown wrote that the warnings given to Colombian officials contradict the rights that countries have under a World Trade Agreement to issue compulsory licenses.
The lawmakers also noted that an existing trade agreement between the US and Colombia reiterates this right. “Attempts to dissuade Colombia … would be inconsistent with the goals of these agreements and would signal that the US is not committed to living up to the standards of our free-trade agreements when it does not suit corporate interests,” they wrote.
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.
As we noted previously, Gleevec is on the World Health Organization list of essential medicines. Colombia hopes to save about $12 million annually, and House Democrats say the medicine costs about twice as much as the average annual income per person in Colombia. Novartis has repeatedly said it is trying to negotiate a solution, but Gaviria has indicated he plans to issue a license shortly.
We asked the US Trade Rep’s office for comment and will update you accordingly.