Five people, five reasons to remove monopolies on medicines

18 Dec 2020

Charles, Tobeka, Din, Nandita, and baby ‘Janey’. Four of these people have struggled for their lives. One of them has lost her life. All because pharma companies put profits before people.

This is what can happen when companies get hold of patents and other monopolies on medicines and then exploit them to make money. The patents surround the medicine like a wall, letting no one else make the medicine more affordably. And with no competition from other producers to challenge them, companies abuse their hold on the monopoly by pushing prices up and up so that people can’t afford to buy them.

High drug prices, propped up by company monopolies, are why four of the people in our five stories struggled to get the lifesaving treatment they urgently needed.  And why while our baby is alive and safe, many others have not been able to get the same protection.
It’s why governments need to understand that patents can have a terrible impact on people’s lives and shouldn’t be allowed to decide who lives and who dies. And why governments now need to get behind the plan proposed at the World Trade Organization to drop patents and monopolies on new medicines and other technologies developed to tackle the coronavirus during the pandemic.
It’s the only way we will be able to ensure fair access to treatment against the virus for everyone, everywhere. That's something worth fighting for.

© Sven Torfinn/MSF

Charles, Kenya

Charles Sako was diagnosed with HIV in 2003.
He thought it was a death sentence. Treatment for people living with HIV was out of reach in the early days of the pandemic in developing countries, not least because the drugs to keep people alive – antiretrovirals - were patented and sold at very high prices by the drug corporations. 
Incensed by this injustice, a global movement sprang up to challenge the patent stranglehold on the lifesaving medicines and open the way for more affordable versions to be made available. Charles was part of that struggle and today is the proud father of five girls and husband to Noel.
The impact of monopolies on access to antiretroviral treatment: Pharmaceutical companies priced early antiretroviral treatment at US$10K per patient per year, beyond the pockets of most people living with HIV in developing countries or their governments. 
Twenty-six million people are alive today because of the work done by health activists to counter the damage caused by unfair patents - either by encouraging generic medicines production in places where patents were not in force or challenging them in court. The price of treatment dropped drastically and today stands at below US$70 per person per year.


Tobeka, South Africa

Tobeka Daki was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer in 2013. 

She needed a cancer drug made by Roche, trastuzumab. But it was too expensive and patents on the drug blocked the production of any affordable alternatives in South Africa where she lived.

Tobeka campaigned long and hard against the corporation to allow people like herself to get hold of less expensive versions of the drug. She died of cancer in 2016.

The impact of monopolies on access to cancer treatment: As a result of the public outcry over the death of Tobeka and many other women who could not afford the treatment they needed, the South Africa government moved to make the product available in the public sector.

In 2019 a competitor product entered the market at a much-reduced price and there are others potentially in the pipeline. This would not have happened without the tireless campaigning of health activists to bring down the patent barriers.


© Todd Brown

Din, Cambodia

Din Savorn was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1999. 

When a revolutionary new cure was developed, Din made the agonising decision not to sell his house in order to raise the money to buy the new medicine and leave his family homeless.

Instead he waited and he hoped because the medicines were not available in the public sector. 

Din was finally treated with the new medicines by MSF for free. Other people in Cambodia living with hepatitis C had a much longer wait.

The impact of monopolies on access to hepatitis C medicines: The new treatment for hepatitis C was first put on the market by the US corporation Gilead Sciences at US$1,000 per single pill in the US and while the price was lower in other countries, it was still too expensive for most people Iiving with the virus until generic medicines became available. 

Patent barriers remain in many countries, where prices still remain a challenge for people who need the medicines, even if competition between drug companies has pushed prices down.



'Janey', USA

'Janey’ is protected from some of the respiratory illnesses that kill babies fast because she has been vaccinated with a pneumonia vaccine.

But millions of other babies around the world are unprotected because the pneumonia vaccine is patented and the corporations that make them refuse to drop the price.

The impact of monopolies on access to pneumonia vaccines: Campaigners have challenged a Pfizer patent on this vaccine in court but have not been successful so far. As a result, many governments continue to be unable to protect their children against pneumonia because they cannot afford the high prices charged by Pfizer.

In 2019 a single new more affordable version was produced but many more are needed to make a difference and save more young lives. 


© Laura Jarriel

Nandita, India

Nandita Venkatesan lost her hearing as a side effect of an outdated TB medicine she was forced to take because a newer and more effective drug, bedaquiline, was too expensive. 

The corporation that holds the patent on bedaquiline, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), refused to drop its price. Nandita’s experience has led her to take up the struggle in India and around the world to ensure that other people living with TB won’t have to face the choice she faced of ‘Deaf or Dead’.

The impact of monopolies on access to TB medicines: Pharma company J&J holds the patent on bedaquiline and are using it to block the production of more affordable generic versions of the drug until the patent runs out – that’s until 2027 in India.

Around 1 in 9 people living with TB are still not able to get hold of this drug and suffer still, largely because of high prices and patents that are blocking the manufacturing of more affordable alternatives.