Viagra patent row erupts between US and China

Image copyright AFP Image caption China’s Wu Qian-ting and Gao Hujie, carrying the branded generic pill outside a hospital in Shanghai

A patent held by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is to be overturned by a UN agency.

Instead of paying hefty premiums to buy its Viagra pills in African countries, cheap generic versions will be made and sold.

Patents for cheaper generic drugs are often regarded as providing equal or better protection to those for originals.

But according to the pharmaceutical firm, scrapping it will make Viagra more affordable for people in poorer countries.

‘Child Labor’

“We simply don’t need to continue to force through our label – in Europe, Japan and the US,” said Margaret Tebbutt, global head of Viagra for Pfizer.

“Our job is to create the market,” she said.

“To cost-effectively deliver this medication across the world, we need to act now. That’s why we’ve reached this agreement.”

The 5mg tablets contain just 0.5mg of active ingredient sildenafil.

Image copyright AFP Image caption Hyung-Gyu Lee, a pharmacist, says: “I’ve always worried that these kinds of drugs would become manufactured like other medicine products at cheap prices in China and Vietnam, which have a large population of migrant workers”

A combination of loose-leaf tablets, an oral route of administration that is said to contain fewer side effects – plus Viagra’s popularity – has meant that doctors have had a difficult time finding its place in their patients’ treatment regimes.

Until now, they have used different methods, such as injecting it or attaching a tube to a syringe into a medical syringe, to give it to patients.

And prices for Viagra have soared in wealthier countries, where marketing budgets are far greater, resulting in increased barriers to entry and narrow patient pools.

Blacklisted drugs

The finding by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) comes after a three-year study into drugs patents.

The UN watchdog says the standard patent system has failed patients in Africa and other developing countries.

The number of people being refused life-saving generic drugs has risen fourfold since 2008. The INCB adds that they often fall foul of manufacturers in countries in North America and Europe which get cheap pills from developing nations.

During the research, the agency also found evidence of widespread black-market trade of the generic medicines.

There are some uncertainties about the significance of the agreement – called Article 31 of a 1999 convention – but according to Ms Tebbutt, what is certain is that it will make it easier for people to get access to Viagra in Africa and other developing regions.

“African pharmacist say that this is Child Labor – they should be allowed to manufacture this drug like any other medicine,” said Hyung-Gyu Lee, a pharmacist in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

She added that it was also impossible to see the “impacts” of Viagra.

The plan will take two to three years to be fully implemented.

Viagra is one of the highest selling medicines in the world, with the multinational firm believing it can make a billion dollars a year from the drug.

However, the company has acknowledged that the new agreement has a major impact on its bottom line, according to Ms Tebbutt.

“Our label will be changing overnight,” she said.

“We’ve estimated that 60% of the Viagra is made using generic products so all the drugs – all the authorised products – will come off patent.”

Image copyright AFP Image caption Margaret Tebbutt, global head of Viagra for Pfizer, says: “We simply don’t need to continue to force through our label – in Europe, Japan and the US”

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