Welcome to Pharmaland: Switzerland’s role

© Mark Henley/Panos
Having come into force in March 2012, the external policy of Switzerland regarding healthcare is designed to reinforce synergies and to favour a coherent position between federal offices in the relevant international fora. As in its previous form, we can detect, however, her “doing the splits”: Switzerland means to guarantee the respect of human rights while preserving the interests of Swiss entities, such as its pharmaceutical industry. Unfortunately, the latter – due to its policy on patents – hinders the access of southern countries to essential medicines for all.

Divided into 20 objectives, of which most directly concern the southern countries, external policy concerning health has been implemented – according to its authors – to meet current challenges in the domain of health. An initial convention of similar objectives, concluded between the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and its domestic equivalent, had opened the way in 2006. For the first time, the federal authorities wished to listen to the different parties in civil society, in research, and from the private sector before finalising the new policy. Public Eye was able to express its opinion, in particular concerning the crucial question of the primacy of human rights over the logic of profit. Unfortunately, this was largely in vain, as the final version only includes the remarks made by the various parties during this consultation in a cosmetic way.

Switzerland’s “splits” syndrome is nothing new. Whether it is in the context of negotiations on bilateral free-trade agreements, or when taking position within international organisations, Switzerland struggles to depart from a certain level of ambivalence.

Indeed, it is rare that it takes clear positions when it involves going against the business model of its pharmaceutical companies, based on patents.

Frequently aligning with the positions of the European Union or the United States – who also defend the interests of their pharma industries – Switzerland lacks political courage.

While Switzerland was previously a fierce opponent of patents on pharmaceutical products, today it defends them vehemently. Switzerland refuses therefore that emergent countries such as India apply the same “recipe” as that which enabled the Basel chemical industry to prosper. Indeed, at the beginning of the last century the latter developed significantly by imitating or copying medicines produced in neighbouring countries – i.e. in producing generic products. The application of patents to pharmaceutical products was only introduced in Switzerland from the 1970s onwards.

Compulsory licences: an efficient instrument to reduce prices

Patents are one of the main causes of the explosion of the price of drugs. Benefiting from a monopoly and commercial exclusivity, the pharmas can in effect fix prices as they wish. The state’s control mechanisms are inadequate. The real costs of R&D are incidentally one of the pharmaceutical industry’s most closely guarded secrets – it often invokes the sacred “business secrecy” principle to their advantage.

© Babu Babu/Reuters

As the country that hosts two pharma giants – Novartis and Roche – Switzerland has a particular responsibility. However, instead of guaranteeing access for everyone to essential medicines, the Swiss authorities prefer to defend the interests of their pharmaceutical industry (responsible together with the agro-chemical industry for nearly half of Swiss exports). In particular, in the context of international negotiations on the implementation of the TRIPS Agreement, the Swiss government adopts a restrictive and exerts economic and political pressure on countries that try to apply the flexibilities included in these provisions to Swiss medicines.

Thanks to compulsory licencing, the Swiss government has significant room to manoeuvre. The use of this legal and legitimate instrument in this “country of the pharmas” would enable not only to guarantee the sustainability of the Swiss healthcare system, but would also send a clear signal at international level, motivating other states to do the same. This would pave the way for the access to essential medicines for millions of people.