Thursday, 19 March 2009

Fake Champagne and Life-saving Drugs

This originally ran on my Reuters AlterNet blog on 19 March 2009.

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How is sparkling wine like a life-saving drug in developing world countries? They're both targeted for destruction by EU customs officials if they're found in European ports with the wrong label on them.

A number of aid agencies are currently worried that overzealous action by EU officials in ports like Rotterdam is going to have serious health effects for people in Africa and South America. Customs officers have been seizing generic drug shipments en route from India to Brazil, Nigeria and elsewhere because of alleged patent infringement. The drugs in question are generic in both the country of origin and the country of destination, but here in the EU, some drug company or other has the legal lock on their manufacture.

Today, in an open letter in the European Voice, a group of MEPs on the European Parliament's international trade committee have picked up the cause, protesting the slated destruction of three consignments of Indian-manufactured generic medicines in particular. These drugs -- clopidogrel, rivastigmine and olanzapine -- were on their way to developing countries to treat patients with serious and life-threatening conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and psychosis. Halting the shipment and planning its destruction is simply outrageous.

Note, these are not harmful or out-of-date meds. As the MEPs write:
It is vital to differentiate between illegal counterfeit medicines -- which the World Health Organization defines as medicines having a false representation of identity and/or source -- and legitimate generic medicines, which are, in most cases, simply unbranded versions of patented medicines.
And the wider implications of the authorities' actions compound the trouble. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) actually ships generic medicines from EU-based warehouses to developing countries. Are the customs police going to break up that perfidious racket, too?

The EU has, of course, been known to destroy large quantities of American sparkling wine improperly labeled "champagne" and caught in EU ports. I am all for safeguarding consumers through protected names, but I don't see the logic of rash action and wanton waste: why smash the bottles when the producer could just be required to relabel them instead before onward shipment? Or when they could be given to charity?

But while a bit of spilt booze is a sad loss, the senseless destruction of live-saving medicines that are perfectly safe and legal in their production and distribution countries is absolutely immoral. The European Commission ought to think again here.

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