MP SPEAKS | Deputy Health Minister Dr Hilmi Yahya was wrong when he told Parliament that the provision Malaysia used under the World Trade Organisation does not allow for non-communicable diseases like cancer to be granted what is termed a “compulsory license,” which guarantees a government to allow cheaper drugs to be made.
Developing countries such as India, Thailand and Colombia have used their compulsory licenses or rights of government to provide cheaper cancer medicines to their citizens, who would otherwise not be able to buy the expensive originator drugs.
The government can exercise the compulsory license in order to produce locally or import generic cancer medicines in the interest of public health, even if the innovator medicine has been patented.
The question here is whether the government has the political will to do so.
It certainly doesn’t look that way, given that Hilmi said that Malaysia has no plans to reduce the price of these medicines – as they did for Hepatitis C – as cancer is not a contagious disease.
This is beyond ridiculous.
Two months ago, Malaysia made an unprecedented move to issue rights of medicine for a medication called Sofosbuvir, used to treat Hepatitis C patients.
As a result, the price was reduced by a whopping 99 percent. About half a million Hepatitis C patients stand to benefit from such a bold move.
Government numbers indicate that any one time, about 100,000 Malaysians will have cancer. The 2011 National Cancer Registration exercise indicates that one in 10 men and one in nine women will have cancer.
Private sector research suggests that one in four Malaysians will have cancer by the time they reach the age of seventy-five.
We have a national cancer crisis, and the cost of cancer care is extremely high. Medications, including chemotherapy, can cost anywhere between RM50,000 and RM300,000.
So it’s really not about whether a disease is contagious or not.
The Government health allocation for medicine has decreased in recent years. The increasing number of people dependent on public hospitals and the spiralling cost of medicines is forcing hospitals to either reduce or stop dispensing medication for patients.
There are enough stories circulating about how cancer patients are denied medication.
In fact, cancer patients have said to me that they were told by doctors that their medication would be stopped, given that they don’t have much time left, and that the medicine would better serve other cancer patients.
Thus, it is crucial that the government exercises either compulsory licensing or rights of government in the interest of public health.
Such a move will help reduce the price of medicines significantly, and enable more patients access to cancer treatment.
The government of Selangor, in its 2018 budget, allocated RM3 million towards cancer palliative care.
Likewise, we see governments around the world working towards making cancer treatment cheaper and therefore much more affordable.
Colombia issued a compulsory license for a medicine called Gleevec, used to treat leukaemia patients. This allowed the country’s government to access the drug formula for pharmaceutical giant Novartis, and paved the way for a local company to manufacture the drug, making it available at a much lower price to leukaemia patients.
Similarly, India pioneered this move for kidney and liver cancer for a medicine called Nexavar, owned by German-drug company Bayer. After a compulsory license was issued, the cost of Nexavar was reduced by 97 percent to US$176 for a month’s supply, down from a staggering US$5,600, a price many kidney cancer patients simply could not afford.
Other countries have shown the way. Even the WTO has said that health emergencies are not the only factor for a country to issue a compulsory license, labelling it a “common misunderstanding.”
Clearly, the Health Ministry has misunderstood my question and Malaysia’s rights under the WTO.
And this misunderstanding may end up costing cancer patients their lives.
CHARLES SANTIAGO is the MP for Klang.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.