Thursday, September 02, 2010

Plumpy'nut, Potentially a Global Life Saver, Entangled in "Intellectual Property" Thicket

Others, however, quickly realized that the miracle product had more than just moral value. Nutriset has aggressively protected its intellectual property, and the bulk of Plumpy’nut production continues to take place at Nutriset facilities in France. (Unicef, the world’s primary buyer, purchases 90 percent of its supply from that factory, according to a 2009 report prepared for the agency.) Internationally, there has been a vituperative debate over who should control the means of production, with India going so far as to impose sharp restrictions on Plumpy’nut, calling it an unproven colonialist import. Elsewhere, local producers are simply ignoring the patent. In Haiti, two manufacturers are making products similar to Plumpy’nut independently of Nutriset: one is Partners in Health, the charity co-founded by the prominent global-health activist Paul Farmer. Partners in Health harvests peanuts from a 30-acre farm or buys them from a cooperative of 200 smallholders. It’s planning to build a larger factory, but for now the nuts are taken to the main hospital in Cange, where women sort them in straw baskets, roast them over an outside gas burner, run them through a hand grinder and mix all the ingredients into a paste that is poured into reusable plastic canisters. Peanuts in Haiti and throughout the developing world have a high incidence of aflatoxin, a fungus that can sicken children, especially fragile ones. But Partners in Health says the product, which it calls Nourimanba, is safe.

When I visited one of the charity’s outpatient clinics in July, 1-year-old Elorky Decena was silent and listless as a nurse hooked a scale over the clinic’s doorway and put him in an attached harness. A month before, he was found to have severe acute malnutrition, a condition characterized by extreme stunting and wasting that afflicts an estimated 20 million children worldwide. The nurse announced that he had gained more than four pounds on a diet of Nourimanba.

Patents are meant to offer incentives to innovators by giving them a time-limited right to exclusively exploit their ideas for profit. But many say that lifesaving products should be treated by a different set of rules. There has been a long and bitter argument, for instance, over the affordability of patented AIDS drugs in Africa. Critics have made a similar case against Plumpy’nut, which is fairly expensive, costing about $60 per child for a full two-month treatment. “We were concerned because of the way Nutriset was managing their intellectual property,” said St├ęphane Doyon, a nutrition specialist with Doctors Without Borders, a medical charity. “We felt that there was the possibility for the creation of a monopoly.”

“Poverty is a business,” Patricia Wolff, a St. Louis pediatrician, said. She founded Meds and Food for Kids, the other local producer of fortified nut paste in Haiti. When I first spoke with her in May, Meds and Food for Kids was struggling to raise money to expand its operations, and Wolff complained mightily about the difficulties she faced because of Nutriset’s market dominance. “There’s money to be made,” she said, “and there are people who have that kind of way of thinking.” Two months later, Wolff made a tentative deal for Meds and Food for Kids to become a Nutriset franchisee. In the end, she said, she couldn’t afford to battle hunger on her own.

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