This week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, World Bank, a few national governments, and 13 drug companies together pledged $785 million for fighting tropical diseases that primarily afflict people in poor countries. In some cases, the drug companies will donate medicine — 14 billion doses, according to Reuters.
In Madhya Pradesh, India, a controversy is raging over clinical drug testing, after a government report concluded that a number of patients participated in clinical trials without their knowledge or informed consent.
The husband of one such patient explained: “The doctor told us that the medicines will be given free and that they were going to be launched soon by a foreign company. Not once did he say it was an experiment or a trial. If I knew, would I have taken the risk?”
In 2005, India loosened the guidelines that regulate clinical drug testing. As a result, participation in such trials rose precipitously, as numerous international pharmaceutical companies decided to take advantage of the country’s lower costs.
C.M. Gulhati, editor of the Monthly Index of Medical Specialities journal, summed up the trend in blunt terms: “India is emerging as a hub for drug trials, and Indian patients are like guinea pigs.”
Doctors Without Borders has put together a useful summary of the ten key stories from 2011 on the struggle to obtain essential medicines in developing countries. As they describe, one of the critical faultlines is India, a country that produces “the most quality affordable medicines used in the developing world, but which faces attacks by drug companies and wealthy countries who continue to clamp down on generic production.”
In an April 2011 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health set out an analytic framework for understanding the right to health. His report also underscored the important role human rights play in securing the basic conditions necessary for living with dignity.
The report also notes that “securing a certain level of health-related development is a prerequisite for the overall economic development of a country.”
Unni Karunakara, the president of Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders, talks about international inequalities in access to medicine and possible developments in models of patent protection. “What about the people dying today?” he asks.