BILL  ON  AFFORDABLE  &  SAFE  MEDICINES:  ANOTHER  LEGAL  BATTLE

MANILA, FEBRUARY 21, 2007
(STAR) HIDDEN AGENDA By Mary Ann Ll. Reyes - Our column piece last Sunday elicited enthusiastic responses both from our media colleagues and readers alike. We lauded what appeared to be the closing of political ranks behind House Bill 6035 which seeks to provide ailing Filipinos with affordable and safe medicines.

The bill was supposed to be among the priority legislation which Congress would tackle during the two-day special session slated Monday and Tuesday this week. As we write this column, we are yet to be informed about the fate of the bill. It is competing for attention of our solons against other priority bills such as the anti-terror bill and the renewal of the franchise of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. or Pagcor.

But House Bill 6035’s bigger challenge was supposed to be coming from a silent but determined well-funded lobby to derail its passage. The bill aims to open the door for the importation of cheaper versions of pricey patented drugs sold in the country by multinational giants, and for the earlier development of the generic versions of said drugs. The ultimate goal is to make sure ailing Filipinos do not have to die just because they cannot afford the signature drugs made by multinational interests.

As we said, we are not buying hook, line and sinker the loud buzz in Congress corridors that multinational interests are out to block the passage of House Bill 6035. Our congressmen know better than to succumb to such pressure. At no other time have our congressmen been united solidly behind a single piece of legislation that would definitely benefit the poor.

It seems many waxed nostalgic when we mentioned the imminent passage of House Bill 6035. Almost instantly, our peers and readers recalled the bitter fight waged by our patriotic officials to help poor Filipinos get medicines that are within their reach. The fight took heavy toll on some of them.

Among those who absorbed the blows in the wake of this battle is Roberto “Obet” Pagdanganan, president of Philippine International Trading Corp. (PITC). PITC, together with the Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD) was sued by Pfizer as the government prepared to import a version of Pfizer’s anti-hypertension drug Norvasc from India.

Our colleagues recall that Pfizer’s suit against Obet had something to do with the former’s patent rights which its lawyers said would be violated if government insists on the importation of the cheap Indian version of Norvasc before said patent expires.

But for the 17.5 million Filipinos suffering from hypertension, the suit boils down to what appears to be the protection of corporate bottom line, an interest more important than their well-being and survival.

The struggle for affordable medicine, however, took a remarkable turn when Filipino pharmaceutical firm United Laboratories launched the anti-hypertension treatment Amvasc. The medicine serves the same purpose as the pricey Norvasc. Amvasc, however, is 60 percent cheaper than Norvasc. The price difference, Obet said, may have made the issue of parallel importation for the Indian Norvasc moot and academic.

Our colleagues also recall that Obet declared that government has already junked such parallel importation plans since Amvasc has already filled the need that the Indian Norvasc would have responded to.

But what baffles our colleagues is why Pfizer persists on its legal action against Obet even after the latter has made such declaration. Mere penchant for muscle-flexing via legal actions? Our colleagues are curious.

If there is a perception that Pfizer is hell-bent on prosecuting Obet for wanting to bring in affordable medicines, the reason may lie on the recent change of leadership at the giant’s international headquarters.

Our colleagues told us that the giant’s erstwhile chairman and CEO Hank McKinnell was forced to resign after a much-ballyhooed drug experiment was botched.

McKinnell was replaced by Jeff Kindler. If McKinnell had trained in the areas of planning and finance, the new chair specialized in litigation. Yes, the new global chair of the giant firm is a lawyer who used to serve as vice president of litigation and legal policy for another global giant, General Electric. He was also general counsel at one point for McDonald’s corporation. And prior to replacing McKinnell, Kindler was likewise general counsel of Pfizer.

Was the assumption of a litigation lawyer as global chair and the persistent legal action against Filipino officials coincidental? We hope so. We pray it has not become a global corporate policy on the part of Pfizer to solve its local woes through muscle-flexing at the court.

Otherwise, our colleagues fear legal stumbling blocks might be strewn along the path of the anticipated law on affordable medicine.

Again, our position is to give Pfizer the benefit of the doubt. It can erase all doubts if it drops the suit against Obet altogether. Common sense and Filipino wisdom favor not suing a person whose only “crime” is wanting to help the poor.

Pfizer might also want to clarify speculations that the recent resignation of a key officer of its local arm was due to that officer’s reservation about the move to sue Obet. The officer reportedly fell out of the graces of management.

Again, we hope this is not true. If it is, then this is a case of a Filipino suffering the consequences of siding with his countryman.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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