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Groups Demand Answers From Obama Administration Regarding Alleged U.S. Interference in Colombian Health Measure

Embassy Letters Suggest U.S. Support for Colombia Peace Plan Threatened in Closed-Door Meeting to Protect Big Pharma Profits


A coalition of nonprofit groups today demanded answers from the Obama administration about its alleged interference in Colombia's effort to lower the price of a cancer drug. It comes as Colombia moves toward lasting peace after more than 50 years of war and domestic turmoil, and as the country is being considered for hundreds of millions in aid.

Colombia's minister of health, Alejandro Gaviria, appeared at the World Health Assembly this week and spoke of the external pressure his country has faced over a potential compulsory license for imatinib (marketed in Colombia by Novartis under the brand name Glivec), a lifesaving substance used in drugs to treat certain types of leukemia and other cancers of the blood. Compulsory licensing provisions under consideration by the Colombian government would make imatinib available in Colombia for half the current extortionate price and free up scarce health system resources for other lifesaving interventions.

This week 15 members of the U.S. House and Senators Brown and Sanders expressed serious concern and objected to any efforts to intimidate and discourage Colombia's government from taking measures to protect public health.

"It appears that the U.S. government may have sought to intimidate a country that is trying to protect its people's health. That is unconscionable," said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines Program. "If any member of the U.S. government further implied that U.S. support for peace in Colombia would be in jeopardy, that would represent a terrible new low for American foreign policy."

All countries, including Colombia, have the right to issue compulsory licenses on medicine patents and "the freedom to determine the grounds upon which such licenses are granted," a right confirmed in the World Trade Organization's Doha Declaration.

Colombia's Ministry of Foreign Relations and its Ministry of Health each received letters in late April from their Washington, D.C. embassy describing pressure from U.S. Senate Finance Committee staff and U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). The leaked letters expressed concern that Colombian interests in the United States might be at risk if the country issues the compulsory license for imatinib, including U.S. support for Paz Colombia, the Obama administration's signature $450 million aid initiative to support the Colombian peace process.

The coalition of groups, which include the AFL-CIO, Presbyterian Church (USA), Health Global Access Project, Knowledge Ecology International, the Latin America Working Group, Oxfam America, Public Citizen and others sent a letter to Obama today. The letter calls on the administration to clarify publicly that no action taken by Colombia toward expanding access to medicines, and specifically regarding the issuance of a compulsory license on imatinib, will affect U.S. support for the peace process in Colombia.

Imatinib is priced in Colombia at nearly double the country's GDP per capita, and its patent holder Novartis has rejected the Colombian government's offer to negotiate a price reduction for the treatment. High prices for important medicines impose a burden on the public health systems responsible for providing it and lead to the rationing of treatment and other health services.

Read the letter here.

Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest in the halls of power. We defend democracy, resist corporate power and work to ensure that government works for the people - not for big corporations. Founded in 1971, we now have 500,000 members and supporters throughout the country.

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