Alma de Leon
Our campaign partner, ITPC-LATCA, is training civil society activists in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to challenge intellectual property (IP) barriers, in order to increase access to essential medicines.
The training has been made more difficult by the pandemic, but a pandemic also makes it all the more necessary – as Alma de Leon, ITPC’LACTA’s Regional Director explains.
“Only around half of people living with HIV across Central America have access to life-saving treatment. The picture when it comes to other epidemics, including TB and Hepatitis C, is largely unknown so far, as data is weak or non-existent in many countries. We are working to address this, as in order to increase access we first have to know what the real situation is.
What we do know, is that civil society has been absolutely essential to the access to treatment movement and fighting for the right to health – and we can’t stop during a pandemic.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic meant, of course, that each of the workshops had to be designed for safe, online participation. But that’s not the only way COVID-19 has affected our work.
Firstly, the pandemic has put access to treatment at greater risk, as people living with HIV and other illnesses struggle to travel to appointments or pick up prescriptions. It also deters people from getting tested and finding out their status, and starting treatment if positive.
Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified existing inequalities. The HIV, TB and Hep C epidemics across the region are largely concentrated, among people who are marginalized due to discriminatory laws and societal attitudes, such as people who use drugs, sell sex or are LGBTQ+.
Let’s be clear, a person’s gender, sexuality, or whether they use drugs or sell sex does not inherently put them at a higher risk of infection – marginalization does.
We’re seeing the same increased risks due to marginalization also play out for COVID-19. If a person’s opportunities are limited due to stigma and discrimination, they are more likely to be living in overcrowded housing, have poorer paid jobs, and/or work in frontline roles – in summary they have to take more risk than people who are more privileged.
That’s one reason, why our work fighting intellectual property barriers has been extended to include medicines that may be used to treat COVID-19. That, and the fact that during the pandemic, corporations have displayed behaviors that clearly demonstrate that they intent to continue to carry on ‘business as usual’, which is to put profit before lives.
Refusing to waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines, treatment and other related medical products is unbelievable. Companies (Gilead Sciences) trying to patent drugs they know will be used in COVID-19 treatment is immoral. Selling vaccine stocks to the richest countries first is unjustified – our health workers and most at risk people are of equal priority as health workers in high income countries.
We demand the immediate action of our governments in the face of the pandemic, to ensure access to medicines and health services for everyone in need.
So, our training focused on reducing the treatment gaps by:
- Explaining the TRIPS Agreement, and countries’ rights through the ‘flexibilities’;
- Identifying priority drugs that can improve people’s quality of life;
- Assessing intellectual property (IP) barriers on these drugs;
- How to prevent or revoke these, for example through stricter patent examinations and filing third-party patent oppositions, and therefore;
- Increasing access to cheaper, quality generics.
The governments of all the countries participating in the training have made commitments to scaling up access to HIV and other essential treatment. However, patent abuse, and in some cases political will, is preventing this from happening quickly enough.
Preventing patent abuse is not just about the right the health, but also makes good economic sense. As countries attempt to recover economically from the impact of COVID-19, saving money must be a priority.
We will continue to support our new generation of treatment activists who will attempt to work collaboratively with health and trade ministers and patent offices, to work in everyone’s best interest, and ensure the pharmaceutical industry does not profit off the pandemic like it has with HIV, TB and Hep C.”