Access To Medicines

Novartis must end ‘bullying tactics’ over lifesaving medicines

JOHANNESBURG, 2 MARCH 2018 – Today Swiss multinational company Novartis is facing pressure from activists globally demanding that they end the ‘lies, threats and bribes’ towards governments trying to improve access to medicines in their countries.

Protest actions are taking place at Novartis offices in the UK, South Africa and Malaysia demanding the company respects the rights of governments who want to protect public health and make medicines more affordable using international legal safeguards. The actions follow recently leaked letters sent from Novartis to threaten the Colombian government over the price of imatinib, a leukemia medicine, in 2016.

The letter leaked by Public Eye show Novartis’ then-CEO writing to the President of Colombia in 2016 to stop the government from exercising its legal right to make imatinib more affordable. Novartis had previously priced the medicine at nearly ZAR 178 000 (USD 15 000), twice the average person’s income in Colombia.

The scandal is the most recent evidence of the undue pressure and threats that governments face when trying to tackle unaffordable medicine prices charged by international pharmaceutical companies. Under international trade law, governments are legally allowed to use certain flexibilities to improve access to affordable medicines. Yet countries that try to implement these flexibilities face enormous pressure by pharmaceutical companies, including Novartis, as well as rich country governments, to stop. 

“We stand in solidarity with our comrades in Colombia who are facing pressure and threats from Novartis. It is totally unacceptable that Novartis thinks its profits are more important than the lives of the Colombia people. All governments must be allowed to use legal safeguards outlined in international law to protect public health. Using these legal safeguards is not even radical! Yet every time countries try, they face backlash from industry and rich governments. This bullying costs lives and cannot go on,” said Anele Yawa, General Secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).  

This month the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), of which Novartis is a leading member, requested that the US government considers trade retaliations against countries taking steps to put people’s access to medicines ahead of intellectual property rights. And this week it was revealed that US trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, has written to the Colombian government to warn that “key stakeholders remain dissatisfied” with its policies on access to medicines. As part of the global actions, activists handed in a letter to the Novartis Chair of the Board calling on him to ensure the new CEO, Vasant Narasimhan, does not use these bullying tactics against governments that are trying to protect the lives of their people.

“Today Colombia is battling a number of issues, from the high prices of medicines and abusive pharmaceutical monopoly behaviour to recovering from 50 years of conflict and the devastating consequences of drug trafficking. We need big pharmaceutical companies to support our development and fulfil their social function. They should make medicines affordable and instead of bullying our government, they should respect and support the right of our government to use legal mechanisms to help people access the lifesaving medicines they need,” said Andrea Reyes, Deputy Director of Misión Salud, Colombia.

“Pharmaceutical companies say that using the flexibilities of TRIPS is to ‘ignore’ or ‘breach’ the patent system. That’s a lie. Licenses exist and can be used, as established by the legal regime of the subject. Meanwhile, health systems pay very high costs for medicines. It is a mistake to look at health issues in terms of the market. In the case of health, we are talking about the possibility of someone worsening their living conditions or even dying,” said Francisco Rossi, Director of Fundación IFARMA, Colombia.

Novartis has also been implicated in a major corruption scandal in Greece this month for allegedly bribing senior politicians – 8 former Ministers and 2 former Prime Ministers – in return for securing higher medicine prices in Greece and the rest of Europe. The company has also previously been fined for a number of documented cases of illegal kickbacks in the US and South Korea.

For photos from the actions, see here

For more information and to arrange interviews contact:

Lotti Rutter | | +27 72 225 9675


 The Novartis AGM is taking place on Friday 2 March in Basel, Switzerland.

The leaked letters expose how Novartis intervened in the Colombian government’s decision to issue a Declaration of Public Interest (a step towards issuing a compulsory license and lowering the price of a drug) over the leukemia drug imatinib (Glivec). One letter shows how Novartis tried to deliberately mislead the Colombian government, saying that issuing a Declaration of Public Interest would mean the Colombian government were undermining the ‘rule of law’. A second letter threatened the Colombian government with legal action via international investment arbitration (or ISDS) if they went through with the compulsory license. See Glivec in Colombia: new leaked letter from Novartis attests to pressure at highest level, 5 February 2018,

Governments have the legal right to issue a compulsory licence enshrined in the World Trade Organisation Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). A compulsory license enables a government to allow another company to produce a patented drug without the consent of the patent owner. Countries can determine the grounds for granting compulsory licences.

The use of TRIPS flexibilities is within the rights of governments under the TRIPS agreement and the Doha Declaration, which affirms that the agreement should be “implemented in a manner supportive of WTO Members’ right to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all…” and  “…reaffirm[s] the right of WTO Members to use, to the full, the provisions in the TRIPS Agreement, which provide flexibility for this purpose’’.

PhRMA submission to Office of the US Trade Representative, February 2018,

It states: “Medicines discovered and manufactured by PhRMA member companies are the constant target of compulsory licensing and other harmful practices that deny the most basic intellectual property protections”.

U.S. trade representative leans on Colombia to rework policies for access to medicines, 26 February 2018,

A copy of the letter is available here.

Greece rocked by claims drug giant bribed former leaders, 12 February 2018,

Novartis has previously caused uproar amongst activists over the same drug, imatinib (brand name Glivec). Over half a million people signed a petition to challenge Novartis as they took the Indian government to court over their rejection of the company’s new patent claim for imatinib[1][2], also known as ‘evergreening’. Eventually the Supreme Court rejected the company’s challenge.

See Novartis Fined $390 Million Over Pharmacy Kickbacks, 20 November 2015; South Korea fines Novartis over kickbacks, suspends sales of some drugs, 2 March 2017; and Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. to Pay More Than $420 Million to Resolve Off-label Promotion and Kickback Allegations, 30 September 2010.

[1]Indian court rejects Novartis patent  httpndian-court-rejects-novartis-patent-1.12717

[2] About the Novartis Drop the Case campaign