The Philippine Senate has unanimously approved a bill that will lower the price of medicines by allowing anyone to import patented drugs which are sold cheaper in other countries. Called parallel importation, this practice is restricted by the Intellectual Property Code and has been vigorously opposed by huge multinational drug firms like Pfizer.
In March 2006, Pfizer filed suit against the Philippine government for patent infringement. Pfizer, among other legal issues, questioned the intended parallel importation of its hypertension drug, Norvase, which patent expires this year. Norvase costs 700% more in the Philippines as compared to India, where the imports are to be sourced. Senate Bill 2263 amends the Intellectual Property Code to allow the parallel importation of medicines patented in the Philippines, easing drug patent rules and bringing prices down. This should take the wind out of Pfizer’s sails. Pfizer and other large drug companies, in collaboration with huge retail outlets like Mercury, have long had a stranglehold on the Philippine drug industry, resulting in stratospheric and unconscionable drug prices. The Philippines has one of the highest medicine prices in Asia. For example, the painkiller mafenamic acid under the brand name Ponstan costs only the equivalent of P2.80 in India but costs P20.98 in the Philippines, or 10 times more. Naturally, the poor and elderly are the hardest hit.
Hopefully, things will soon change, despite the lobbying and pressure exerted by the giant pharmaceutical companies. The government will also be allowed to use patented drugs during a national emergency or for the public interest, with notice and compensation to the patent holder. This could save thousands of lives in the event of the anticipated avian-flu pandemic.
Big Pharma, predictably, is raising the specter of counterfeit drugs flowing into the country due to the new law. But the problem of fake meds has always existed, with or without parallel importation. Its worth the risk, if only to provide affordable medicine to those who need it most. And to give the drug players who have lorded it over the country for so long some overdue and healthy competition.