[LETTERS to the editor]Golden Mean is needed to guide FTAIn 2005, the number of people living with HIV exceeded 40 million worldwide and most of them lived in sub-Saharan Africa. The harsh reality in Africa is that most HIV sufferers cannot receive proper care, and the region continues to be the most devastated by the AIDS epidemic. Reportedly, only 4 percent of HIV-infected persons have been treated appropriately. One of the reasons is that the cost of medicine is simply too high for Africans, who barely subsist on $1 or $2 a day.
This is not only a problem in Africa and other poor countries. South Koreans, too, are suffering from the high cost of medicines even as they face having to cope with even higher costs in the near future with the proposed free trade agreement with the United States.
The second FTA negotiation between South Korea and the United States began on July 11. During the negotiation, the United States asked for many changes in the Korean pharmaceutical system and particularly sought the extension of the patent period. Currently, more than 90% of the medicines in South Korea is generic; therefore, if the patent period is extended, Korean pharmaceutical companies would not be able to produce as many generic medicines as before under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. Consequently, people will have to buy expensive foreign medicine and poor patients would somehow have to “survive” until the patent period ends.
This is not the first time that controversy has arisen pitting patients’ right to life against the pharmaceutical companies’ patent system. In May 2001, the Food and Drug Association (FDA) approved Gleevec as a leukemia medicine and a dependable treatment for cancer patients who’ve had difficulty with earlier anti-cancer medicines. Due to its formidable effectiveness, it has been acclaimed as a “miracle drug.” Delighted with such innovation, Korean leukemia patients asked the government to make the medicine available here. Finally, in June 2001, the pharmaceutical company Novartis, which produces this miraculous medicine, decided to sell Gleevec in Korea for the price of 25,000 won for each tablet. The Korean government tried to persuade Novartis to lower the price to 17,000 won with insurance, but Novartis refused. Patients protesting the absurd price said Novartis was trying to profit at the expense of patients’ lives. A leukemia patient, Kim Sang-duck, died while protesting for a lower price in 2003. The protest concerning the “miraculous” medicine, which became “despair” medicine, continues. The controversy between the patent system and the right to life is likely to heat up with the advent of the FTA.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought deeply about what makes an act excellent. He concluded that excellence or the Golden Mean is more than just knowledge or science; it is an art that can only be developed through practice. I think the same principle should be applied to the controversy over intellectual property rights versus the right to life, since both are important values that should be pursued simultaneously. Obviously corporations are justified in preserving the patent system, for it promotes work by scientists to develop more innovations such as Tamiflu. However, instead of merely seeking their own benefit, it is time for pharmaceutical companies to show social responsibility for poor people who are dying solely due to lack of money. It is time for the Korean government to advocate the people’s most fundamental right in negotiating an FTA with the U.S. that is guided by the Golden Mean.
by Kim Min-sik