If health is a human right, access to low-cost pharmaceuticals would seem essential. Yet drugs are commodities that trade on the open market, a reality that can make their price prohibitively high for many poor people.
The battle against the commoditization of pharmaceuticals is at the core of Professor Angelina Godoy’s new book, Of Medicines and Markets: Intellectual Property and Human Rights in the Free Trade Era. Professor Godoy is the Director of the UW Center for Human Rights and holds a joint faculty appointment with the Law, Societies, and Justice Program and the Jackson School of International Studies.
Of Medicines and Markets, published by Stanford University Press, is a comparative study of the differing effects of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) on domestic intellectual property law, one of the main issues at the core of access to vital medicines, between Costa Rica, Guatemala, and El Salvador. One of the stipulations for countries that sign CAFTA is that they must codify the treaty into domestic law. Despite the universal language of the treaty, the various countries involved use different methods domestically to implement the legal obligations of the treaty.
When asked about the issue of codification, Godoy said, “The actual impact of CAFTA is different in each country based on the legislation that they wrote. When countries signed on to CAFTA there was some sacrifice, but countries that had more active social movements had legislation that was better written to protect health as a human right.”
Unfortunately, Godoy also said that, “In countries where there wasn’t a lot of organizational action around this, there wasn’t a lot of public scrutiny. If there aren’t a lot of people raising their voice about it, the legislation will kind of just be rammed through.”
When asked about whether the problem with access mainly stems from issues inherent to CAFTA or generally arise from domestic implementation, Godoy noted that it definitely starts with CAFTA but that better domestic legislation can counteract some of the inherent issues with the treaty.
Godoy said that while drafting CAFTA, “There is a lot of input from private industry, and not a lot of input from public health or Human Rights sectors.” And that, “In terms of the provisions concerning intellectual property, those were the provisions that the United States demanded.”
Professor Godoy said that it essentially boils down to the influence of the large pharmaceutical companies. As she noted, “The big companies are organized into a block, and they may have their bases in the United States or various countries in Europe, but they are very, very powerful in exerting their influence in the policies that those countries promote internationally. And intellectual property for them is where they get all of their profits.”
In terms of the domestic issues that compound the problems within the provisions of CAFTA, Professor Godoy said, “One of the things that was discouraging that I learned during the course of doing my research for the book, in the area of intellectual property and access to medicines, it really requires very specialized knowledge in intellectual property law. There wasn’t a lot of that in Central America. Those that did have that specialized intellectual property knowledge and expertise were working for the pharmaceutical companies.”
When asked about what needs to happen in order for positive reform to occur or for greater access to open up, Professor Godoy said, “There is a lot of room for disagreement, whether to work within the current system and try to find ways to create greater access or whether the current system is just simply so broken that we need to find a new one. I tend to think the latter, that the current system is just fundamentally broken in terms of access questions.”
Professor Godoy acknowledged that her views on the deep inherent flaws in the system may give the impression that improving access to vital medicines and promoting widespread acknowledgement of health as a human right is rather hopeless, but insisted that she is optimistic about the possibilities for reform.
She said, “I think that it is important to note that there are people working within the patent system who are very concerned about access, and so it is not that anybody working within the patent system is bad or on the wrong side.”
Professor Godoy ended her response by saying, “The ultimate answer to your question is really determined actually not by what any expert says but by what you and me say, people who are citizens and have a stake in these matters.”
This article was written by Chase Beauclair.