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Switzerland’s role

In force since March 2012, Switzerland’s foreign health policy is supposed to strengthen synergies and favour a coherent position between federal offices in the international fora concerned. However, as was the case for the previous version of the policy, one can detect the «great discrepancy» syndrome: Switzerland wishes to guarantee respect of human rights while at the same time preserving the interests of the Swiss stakeholders, such as its pharmaceutical industry. Yet the latter, through its patents policy, impedes access to affordable lifesaving medicines in countries of the Global South and East.

While Switzerland has long been a fierce opponent of patents on pharmaceutical products, it today defends them with vehemence. Thus Switzerland denies emerging countries like India the right to apply the same recipe as that which allowed the Basel chemical industry to prosper. In fact, at the beginning of the last century this industry developed significantly by imitating or copying medicines produced in neighbouring countries – in other words by producing generics. The granting of patents on pharmaceutical products was only introduced in Switzerland in the 1970s.

Public Eye considers that the current pharmaceutical pricing model relying on patent-based monopolies is working against the public interest, is threatening the sustainability of the Swiss and other health systems abroad, and is undermining the system of health coverage. We believe that every person should have access to quality, safe, efficacious and affordable medicines – regardless of where he or she lives.

There is a way to control the prices of medicines and take a stand against pharmaceutical companies: the issuance of a compulsory licence. The Swiss Patent Act contains a range of provisions regarding compulsory licenses. However, the Swiss authorities voluntarily overlook this legal mechanism, even though it could significantly help them in negotiating the prices of medicines. This inaction can be explained by Switzerland’s great dependence on its pharmaceutical industry. It was estimated that in 2017 more than 45,000 people were employed in the pharmaceutical industry and that 38% of Switzerland’s exports were in the pharmaceutical sector (45% when taking into account the whole group of pharmaceutical and chemical products).

Public Eye stresses that the sound balance between public and private interest that is required by the patent system has been broken. The Federal Council has a special responsibility to restore it, to ensure the sustainability of the health system, and to secure the principle of universal health coverage override the interest of the patent holder to retain its monopoly on its high-priced drug.

High medicine prices are not a fate and can be acted upon with political will.