Dozens of HIV patients have been placed at risk after the Dutch authorities seized consignments of Indian-made medicines shipped via Schipol airport for distribution to clinics in Nigeria, a multilateral agency on Wednesday said.
Officials claimed the drugs were counterfeits and violated patent rules but Unitaid, the Geneva-based agency which paid for the medicines, demanded their release and said the claims were “misleading”.
The action – the latest seizure of drugs shipped via the Netherlands to developing countries – has highlighted tensions between European Union legislation and special patent rules on medicines agreed by the World Trade Organisation, which on Wednesday offered to intervene in the dispute.
The latest confiscation is particularly embarrassing because the drugs were paid for by the international donor governments which support Unitaid – including several EU nations such as France and the UK – and were to be distributed in Nigeria by the Clinton Foundation established by the former US president.
Dutch officials insisted the seizure reflected “friction” between EU and WTO rules.
A 2003 European Council regulation requires the seizure and destruction of counterfeits or goods violating intellectual property rights from third countries, even if they were only being shipped via the EU.
James Love of Knowledge Ecology International, an advocacy group that has helped raise concerns about the seizures, said the EU position was “indefensible”.
Dutch customs officials said in a document seen by the Financial Times that the seizure in December of 49kg of Abacavir had taken place because of intellectual property concerns.
The drug is a “second line” antiretroviral to treat patients who no longer respond to the normal initial medicines given for HIV.
However, GlaxoSmithKline, which holds the patent, had no objections to Aurobindo of India, the manufacturer, making it for Nigeria, under waivers for medicines under the WTO’s trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights.
The issue was raised during a visit to India last month by the Dutch trade minister, Frank Heemskerk, who assured his hosts that the Netherlands wanted to resolve the problem.