Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Colombia face-off with Novartis, U.S. lawmakers over cancer drug pricing (May 18, 2016)

Colombia is facing off against international pharmaceutical giant Novartis. The government has given the world's biggest drugmaker a few weeks to lower prices on a leukemia drug or see its monopoly on production of the medicine broken and competition thrown open to generic rivals.

The increasingly public fight "could set a precedent for middle-income countries grappling to contain rising prices for complex drugs," reports the Associated Press.

Leaked memos from the Colombian Embassy in Washington describe intense pressure from the pharmaceutical industry and its allies in the U.S. Congress. They raise the possibility that the government's efforts to lower the price of Gleevec (also called Glivec) could jeopardize the $450 million promised by the U.S. to help fund peace talks with the FARC, reports the Huffington Post

(See Feb. 5's and Feb. 26's posts on the "Peace Colombia" plan.)

The leaked letters describe how a staffer with the U.S. Senate Finance Committee warned of repercussions if Colombia moves forward on approving the cheaper, generic form of the cancer drug, reports The Intercept. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who leads the Senate Committee close ties to the pharmaceutical industry, notes the piece.

Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria said the pressure shows the forceful steps that the pharmaceutical industry is willing to take to protect its commercial interests, reports the AP.

The high prices for the popular drug are straining Colombia's health budget, as the health care system guarantees patients' access to all approved drugs.

Over 120 international experts wrote a letter to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos earlier this week supporting his right to create a generic version of the drug, called Imatinib, according to Colombia Reports.

News Briefs 

  • Tensions are ratcheting up further in Venezuela. The opposition is planning an opposition march today to demand a presidential recall, and the government has promised to bar them from Caracas' center in order to avoid bloodshed, reports the Miami Herald. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro warned the opposition that they had missed a key date in their attempt to implement a recall referendum and warned them that their demonstration today would be met with the full force of law. (See yesterday's and Monday's posts.)
  • Opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski warned the Armed Forces that they must choose whether to stand with the people or with the government, and that the government can't prevent today's march because there are constitutional guarantees that aren't suspended yet, reports the Caracas Chronicles.
  • Maduro said yesterday that the country's opposition-led "National Assembly has lost political validity. It's a matter of time before it disappears," reports Reuters. (See yesterday's and Monday's posts.)
  • The government is not obligated to carry out a recall vote, he said, and also denounced a smear campaign by the international press, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, reports Efecto Cocuyo. (See yesterday's post.)
  • The National Assembly, in the meantime, approved an agreement that condemns both the State of Exception and the Economic Emergency announced by the executive last week, and nullified the decrees enacting them, reports the Caracas Chronicles. (See Monday's post.) The heated debate in the National Assembly nearly came to blows between legislators, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • Maduro has the upper hand, for now, as the judiciary and electoral authorities side with the government and can overrule the National Assembly's rejection of the state of emergency and obstruct the recall referendum, respectively, reports the Guardian.
  • A U.S. plane with "lethal technical capabilities" illegally entered Venezuelan airspace, denounced Maduro in yesterday's speech, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • "I don't remember a political landscape this combustible in Venezuela, well…ever. I don’t remember our political conflict ever been this suffused with menace, this clearly poised for violence," writes Francisco Toro in the Caracas Chronicles. (See yesterday's post.)
  • As things heat up, there is talk in Venezuela of Vatican mediation in the face-off between the government and the political opposition, writes David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The Vatican announced an upcoming visit by its Secretary for Relations with States, and some hopeful observers point to the role of the Catholic Church in brokering the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement. "However, difficult relations between the Vatican and the Venezuelan Hierarchy, and between the Hierarchy and the Maduro government, in addition to the latter's likely disinterest in negotiation will make such mediation complex," warns Smilde.
  • Smilde also notes that some kind of mediation would be welcome in Venezuela, where opinion polls show that over 90 percent of Venezuelans want the government and opposition to work together.
  • It is however worth noting that the government has no legal way to shut down parliament, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • Dominican Republican President Danilo Medina handily won reelection with over 60 percent of the vote on Sunday. Preliminary results show his party also retained control over the Congress, albeit with fewer seats, reports the Wall Street Journal. The OAS observer team criticized the country's election finance system and said new fingerprint scanning machines caused widespread delays in Sunday's voting. People were seen buying voter identification cards outside polling stations, according to the team.
  •  A close aide to the Mexican president met with a government contractor at the center of a real estate scandal involving house purchases from him by the first lady and finance minister. Mexico's Communications Minister Gerardo Ruiz Esparza met Juan Armando Hinojosa, the businessman in question, in June and July in Mexico City of last year, as the government conducted an inquiry into the issue that ultimately found no evidence of wrongdoing, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See April 5's post on Hinojosa's off-shore dealings revealed in the "Panama Papers.")
  • Mexican President Enrique Peñalosa said he will seek to legalize gay marriage in the country through a constitutional amendment and civil code reform. He said the proposals aim to enshrine in law a Supreme Court ruling last year that determined state-bans on gay marriage to be unconstitutional, reports the Wall Street Journal. Last year's ruling already de facto legalized gay marriage. With the new initiative Mexico would join Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, as well as Colombia -- meaning more than 70 percent of Latin Americans will live in countries where same-sex marriage is permitted, notes the New York Times.  Same-sex marriage was legalized by ordinance in Mexico City and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2010, it was the first Latin American jurisdiction to do so, reports the Guardian. The announcement was criticized by church officials in Mexico, which is home to the second-largest Roman Catholic population in the world, reports the Associated Press.
  • The cast and crew of a Brazilian drama in competition at Cannes, Aquarius, mounted a protest to what they call a coup in their country at the film's official premiere, reports the Guardian. The protest was met by ecstatic applause inside the cinema.
  • Agricultural giant Monsanto is pressuring the Argentine government to collect royalty payments on genetically engineered seeds in the country. It has canceled plans to launch new biotech soybeans the country and is threatening to withdraw other seeds already sold there, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Ecuador was hit with a 6.7 magnitude earthquake this morning in the same zone where less than a month ago the largest earthquake to affect the country in decades killed more than 650 people and injured more than 16,600. The extent of the damage is not yet clear, reports the New York Times, though President Rafael Correa wrote on Twitter that there were no early reports of damage. Electricity was cut in some coastal areas, reports Reuters.

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