Revealed: Leaks show senate staffer threatened Colombia with loss of foreign aid over cheap cancer drug
Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

A new report says that the pharmaceutical industry is using the U.S. Congress as its enforcement arm against firms that want to manufacture cheap cancer drugs abroad.

Colombia’s Minister of Health Alejandro Gaviria received a dire warning via diplomatic channels that his plan -- announced on April 28 -- to begin production of a generic leukemia drug could cost the South American country hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid.

According to The Intercept, leaked communications from the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Colombian embassy in Washington expressed concern about possible congressional retaliation if the country approved plans to manufacture a version of imatinib, used in treating chronic myeloid leukemia and gastrointestinal tumors.

The current annual cost of treatment using imatanib is over $15,000 -- almost twice the average Colombian's income.

In a letter, Deputy Chief Andrés Flórez, described a meeting with Senate Finance Committee International Trade Counsel Everett Eissenstat. According to Flórez, Eissenstat said that authorizing the generic version would “violate the intellectual property rights” of Novartis, the manufacturer of the drug.

According to the letter, Eissenstat stated “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.”

The Senate Finance Committee is head by powerful Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) who has close ties to the pharmaceutical industry, with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) awarding an outside nonprofit $750,000 to back Hatch’s re-election in 2012.

According to Flórez, “this case could jeopardize the approval of the financing of the new initiative ‘Peace Colombia,’” for which the Obama administration has pledged $450 million.

"Peace Columbia" is designed to bring together fighting rebel factions in the country, with some of the money allocated for removing landmines.

In an interview with The Intercept, Andrea Carolina Reyes, who works with  Colombia-based nonprofit Misión Salud, cautioned against the threats.

“I would … ask [Hatch] to consider that we’re talking about people’s lives and this needs to mean something to him,” she explained. “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.”