The World Health Organisation has condemned the Dutch Government’s “farcical” detention of HIV medication destined for Sub-Saharan Africa, which it says flouts world trade rules – and will endanger patients’ health.

The WHO has been joined by other aid groups in rebuffing suggestions that the consignment of a low-cost generic form of the antiretroviral abacavir was counterfeit medicine that infringed the patent of GlaxoSmithKline. Dutch customs seized the shipment, made by Indian firm Aurobindo, en-route to Nigeria, at Schipol airport in November under EC legislation designed to protect intellectual property rights.

However, GSK has let it been known that it did not believe its patent on abacavir, which it markets as Ziagen, had been infringed, and that it had no plans to challenge the legality of the shipment.

Ruud Stevens, a spokesman for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs conceded that GSK had approved the consignment. “This is the case,” he said, “and the Dutch Government would like to ensure that medicines are sent to where they are needed. But we have to ensure that EC law is respected. This really is a European issue.”

No-one in the European Commission press office was available for comment. However, a spokeswoman for the WHO’s Unitaid drug purchasing division said that the situation in which the authorities were checking for breach of patent against the wishes of the product's owner meant the situation was “farcical”. “We’re flabbergasted,” she told PharmaTimes. “We don’t understand what the problem is.”

She said Unitaid was “gravely concerned” for the Nigeria patients who were awaiting the abacavir shipment. “Interruption in HIV therapy is extremely dangerous and can cause resistance to the medicines. We therefore strongly urge the Dutch government to release the medicines so that they can reach patients as soon as possible.”

Aid agencies note that under World Trade Organisation rules, intellectual property rights only apply at a shipment’s point of origin and its destination.

They say the HIV drugs episode is the latest example of over-zealous enforcement of EC red tape designed to protect drug firms’ profits by hindering the international trade in counterfeit medicines.

In the past 12 months there have been at least 14 other documented cases. On December 4, a consignment of the cardiovascular medicine losartan was detained in Amsterdam at the request of Merck & Co, which holds the patent for the branded version Cozaar, so that it could be inspected for a possible violation of patent rights. The shipment was released several weeks later.

However, the latest incident shows that legislation rather that drug companies are to blame for the current situation, says leading campaign groups. In particular, they are calling on the EC to revise regulation No 1383/2003 of July 2003, which they say allows for the seizure of medical shipments on the basis they might be infringing intellectual property rights or be counterfeit.

Rohit Malpani of Oxfam International added that the EC law failed to respect the WTO’s Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health, which says that intellectual property rules should not interfere with the ability of developing countries to protect and promote public health. “This situation cannot be allowed to continue,” he said. “It is time that the WTO and WHO gave strong and clear leadership to ensure that lawful trade in generic medicines is not blocked.”