Could Legalizing Prescription Drug Imports Break Big Pharma?

(Photo: Pexels; Edited: LW / TO)(Photo: Pexels; Edited: LW / TO)

During the January 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a landmark treatment program.  As Bush spoke, the cameras panned to a smiling guest of honor standing to the right of First Lady Laura Bush. The guest was Ugandan physician Dr. Peter Mugyenyi, and he was an illegal importer of medicines.

Mugyenyi had broken the law in order to save lives. An HIV/AIDS pandemic was sweeping the African continent in the early 2000s, and Mugyenyi’s patients and millions of others were dying because they could not afford the monopoly-inflated prices of patented antiretroviral drugs to treat the disease. Mugyenyi’s importing of cheaper versions of the medicine into Uganda, along with similar illegal imports by South African activists, dramatized the deadly impacts of lifesaving medicines being priced at hundreds of times manufacturing costs. Drug importation became part of a global campaign of pressure on pharmaceutical companies, which eventually responded by cutting the price of patented AIDS drugs by as much as 90 percent.

It was a monumental victory for the human right to health, and set the stage for the PEPFAR program announced by Bush during that 2003 speech, and the companion United Nations Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Thanks to brave grassroots activists who demanded the world pay attention to the devastation being caused by medicine monopolies and greed, these programs now provide to 18 million HIV-positive people the treatment that was once unaffordably priced. These programs demonstrate that it is possible to have a medicines system that prioritizes morality over intellectual property, and bypasses the record-breaking profits siphoned off by Big Pharma. 

Could a new proposal to allow US patients, drug wholesalers and pharmacies to import cheaper prescription drugs have a similar impact, allowing millions of people to access medicine…

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