Leaked diplomatic letters sent from Colombia’s Embassy in Washington describe how a staffer with the Senate Finance Committee, which is led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, warned of repercussions if Colombia moves forward on approving the cheaper, generic form of a cancer drug.
The drug is called imatinib. Its manufacturer, Novartis, markets the drug in Colombia as Glivec. The World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines last year suggested it as treatment not only for chronic myeloid leukemia, but also gastrointestinal tumors. Currently, the cost of an annual supply is over $15,000, or about two times the average Colombian’s income.
On April 26, Colombian Minister of Health Alejandro Gaviria announced plans to take the first step in a multi-step process that could eventually result in allowing generic production of the drug. A generic version of the drug that recently began production in India is expected to cost 30 percent less than the brand-name version.
Andrés Flórez, deputy chief of mission at the Colombian Embassy in Washington, D.C., wrote letters on April 27 and April 28 to Maria Angela Holguin of Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, detailing concerns he had about possible congressional retaliation for such a move. The letters were obtained by the nonprofit group Knowledge Ecology International, which works on drug patent issues. They were also leaked to Colombian media outlets El Espectador and NoticiasUno.
In the second letter, after a meeting with Senate Finance Committee International Trade Counsel Everett Eissenstat, Flórez wrote that Eissenstat said that authorizing the generic version would “violate the intellectual property rights” of Novartis. Eissenstat also said that if “the Ministry of Health did not correct this situation, the pharmaceutical industry in the United States and related interest groups could become very vocal and interfere with other interests that Colombia could have in the United States,” according to the letter.
In particular, Flórez expressed a worry that “this case could jeopardize the approval of the financing of the new initiative ‘Peace Colombia.’”
The Obama administration has pledged $450 million for Peace Colombia, which seeks to bring together rebels and the government to end decades of fighting that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and a shattered civil society. These funds will be used for, among other things, removing land mines. The country has the second-highest number of land-mine fatalities in the world, behind only Afghanistan.
Hatch has close ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Pharmaceutical and health product manufacturers form the second-largest pool of donors to his campaigns. The industry’s main trade association, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, spent $750,000 funding an outside nonprofit that backed Hatch’s re-election in 2012. The lobbying group also employed Scott Hatch, one of the senator’s sons, as a lobbyist, while donating to his family charity, the Utah Families Foundation.
For his part, Eissenstat has won the “Lighthouse Award” at the annual dinner of the Washington International Trade Association. WITA’s board of directors is composed largely of government relations staff from major corporations who help shape trade and intellectual property policy in their favor: WalMart, Microsoft, and Gap all have representatives. In bestowing the award on Eissenstat, WITA board member Bill Lane said the award is given to a “shining light of the trade community.”
The same year, his boss Hatch received the dinner’s Congressional Leadership Award.
Andrea Carolina Reyes, a pharmacist who works with the Colombia-based medical nonprofit Misión Salud, called the pressure to suppress the cheaper drug harmful. “I would … ask [Hatch] to consider that we’re talking about people’s lives, and this needs to mean something to him,” she told The Intercept. “In Colombia, we really have health constraints. There’s people, they have no access to anything. They live hours from health institutions, and they don’t have even the cheapest medicines.”
Neither Eissenstat nor Hatch responded to multiple requests for comment. “We do not comment on internal correspondence,” Olga Acosta, press officer at the Colombian Embassy, told The Intercept.