06/17/2006 10:57 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Genetech blocks cheap blindness cure, US pressure on WHO official in Thailand

Terry Fisher from Harvard has pointed out this shocking story by Sarah Boseley in today's Guardian. Jamie

* A major drug company is blocking access to a medicine that is cheaply and effectively saving thousands of people from going blind because it wants to launch a more expensive product on the market. Ophthalmologists around the world, on their own initiative, are injecting tiny quantities of a colon cancer drug called Avastin into the eyes of patients with wet macular degeneration, a common condition of older age that can lead to severely impaired eyesight and blindness. They report remarkable success at very low cost because one phial can be split and used for dozens of patients.

* But Genentech, the company that invented Avastin, does not want it used in this way. Instead it is applying to license a fragment of Avastin, called Lucentis, which is packaged in the tiny quantities suitable for eyes at a higher cost. Speculation in the US suggests it could cost £1,000 per dose instead of less than £10. The company says Lucentis is specifically designed for eyes, with modifications over Avastin, and has been through 10 years of testing to prove it is safe.,,1799832,00.html

Drugs firm blocks cheap blindness cure: Company will only seek licence for medicine that costs 100 times more Sarah Boseley, health editor Saturday June 17, 2006 The Guardian

Susan Sell from George Washington University pointed out this one:

* BANGKOK - When World Health Organization (WHO) director general Lee Jong-wook died of a cerebral hemorrhage last month before the start of the United Nations agency's annual World Health Assembly, the world's most prominent public-health official was arguably of a conflicted mind. The WHO veteran was caught in the middle of an intensifying global debate over how to reconcile intellectual-property protection with the pressing public-health need to expand access to expensive life-saving medicines, a hot-button issue that has sharply divided WHO member states along developed- and developing-country lines.

* An Asia Times Online investigation reveals that at the time of his death, Lee, a South Korean national, had closely aligned himself with the US government and by association US corporate interests, often to the detriment of the WHO's most vital commitments and positions, including its current drive to promote the production and marketing of affordable generic antiretroviral drugs for millions of poor infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can cause AIDS.

* According to senior and middle-ranking WHO officials familiar with the situation, Lee blatantly bent to US government pressure in March when he made the controversial decision to recall the WHO country representative to Thailand, William Aldis, who had served less than 16 months in what traditionally has been a four-year or longer posting.

* Aldis had made the mistake of penning a critical opinion piece in the Bangkok Post newspaper in February that argued in consonance with WHO positions that Thailand should carefully consider before surrendering its sovereign right to produce or import generic life-saving medicines as allowed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in exchange for a bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA) with the United States, which is currently under negotiation.

* The WHO official also wrote that the stricter intellectual-property protection measures in the proposed US-Thai FTA would inevitably lead to higher drug prices and thereby jeopardize the lives of "hundreds of thousands" of Thai citizens who now depend on access to locally produced cheap medicines to survive. He noted too that the Thai government's current production of generic treatments had allowed the country to reduce AIDS-related deaths by a whopping 79%.

* A US ambassador to the UN in Geneva paid a private visit to Lee on March 23 to express Washington's displeasure with Aldis' newspaper commentary, according to WHO officials familiar with the meeting. A follow-up letter from the US government addressed to Lee strongly impressed Washington's view of the importance of the WHO to remain "neutral and objective" and requested that Lee personally remind senior WHO officials of those commitments, according to a WHO staff member who reviewed the correspondence. The next day, Lee informed the regional office in New Delhi of his decision to recall Aldis.

* Suwit Wibulpolprasert, senior adviser to the Thai Ministry of Public Health, early this month sent a formal letter to acting WHO director general Anders Nordstrom, requesting an official explanation for Aldis' abrupt removal. According to a WHO official in Geneva with knowledge of the correspondence, the letter raised questions about possible US influence behind the irregular personnel rotation and said that if the WHO decision was motivated by Aldis' comments on the US-Thai FTA, then the WHO should reconsider the transfer.

* Suwit also raised his concerns about the level of transparency and freedom of speech inside the WHO. In e-mail communication with this correspondent, Suwit said WHO officials had already denied that Aldis' recall was related to the opinions stated in the Bangkok Post article. A regional WHO official in New Delhi told a senior Thai public-health official that Aldis' removal was related to "inefficiency" in performing his functions - a characterization that Thai officials who worked alongside him through the 2004 tsunami and ongoing avian-influenza scare have privately contested.

Asia Time Online - Daily News
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