The Wire | 5 February 2018
Delhi’s RCEP talks on intellectual property shouldn’t forget India’s role as ‘Pharmacy of the World’
by Leena Menghaney
India has a real opportunity this week to push back on pressure from other countries and pharmaceutical corporations that want to limit its ability to produce affordable, lifesaving medicines, and vaccines that are relied upon by millions of people worldwide.
Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiators from member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its trading partners – Korea, Japan, China, India, Australia, and New Zealand – are meeting in .between February 5-10, 2018, to discuss the intellectual property (IP) chapter of the potential regional trade deal that covers nearly half of the world’s population. The outcome of this IP discussion could have detrimental effects on public health. India – which is considered the “pharmacy of the developing world” since it manufactures and sells many affordable versions of some of the world’s most-needed medicines – must resist pressure and make sure the deal doesn’t limit the production of life-saving generic drugs here or abroad.
As they delve into the IP chapter this week, negotiators must keep in mind that the decisions they make aren’t just minor policy changes, but have life or death consequences for millions of people. Masked as promoting “free trade,” this agreement is set to protect pharmaceutical corporations and allow them to block other developers from making and selling affordable drugs and vaccines. As a result, fewer people, governments, and treatment providers will be able to get the medicines they need.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/Doctors Without Borders sees first-hand every day how high-price, patented drugs and vaccines leave people struggling to find a way to pay for medicines or simply go without and hope for the best. People living with HIV, drug-resistant tuberculosis (DR-TB), and hepatitis C, as well as children desperately in need of pneumonia vaccines, should not have to wonder if or when they’ll be able to afford the medicine that could save their lives.
Across the globe – in high-, middle- and low-income countries – spiralling medicine prices are now threatening the financial sustainability of government health programs. For example, we’ve seen the high prices of vaccines against pneumonia – the world’s leading killer of children under five – hamper immunisation programmes. South Africa spends more than 30% of its vaccination budget on purchasing Pfizer’s pneumonia vaccine alone. Pharmaceutical corporations launch medicines at absurdly high prices, such as the hepatitis C drug sofosbuvir, which drug maker Gilead priced at nearly $84,000 for a 12-week course of treatment in the United States, where one in five people fail to fill prescriptions because they cannot afford to.
According to a leaked draft of RCEP’s IP chapter, South Korea and Japan are helping pharmaceutical corporations expand their monopolies on expensively-priced drugs and forcing all negotiating countries to follow suit. For example, patents on the first two new TB drugs developed in approximately 50 years – delamanid and bedaquiline – are set to expire in India by 2023 but could be artificially extended by the provisions currently laid out in RCEP. This means scaling up DR-TB treatment in high-burden countries would be even more difficult, if not impossible, despite the fact these essential medicines are of critical importance for public health.
Additionally, negotiators are considering new registration-related monopolies including data exclusivity, which could apply to new formulations of older medicines, even when patents no longer apply or exist. This gives corporations a new way to keep prices high and block generic competition.
India’s role in this public health fight cannot be stressed enough; MSF has seen time and time again how more lives can be saved and improved when affordable medicines are produced in India and, itself, relies heavily on such medicines to do its medical work around the world. In fact, two-thirds of the medicines MSF uses to treat people with HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria are generics made in India.
MSF began providing antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for HIV/AIDS with generics back in 2000 – a time when pharmaceutical corporations were charging more than $10,000 per patient per year. Competition among generic manufacturers in India has brought the price of HIV treatment down by more than 99% to less than $100 per patient per year in some cases, revolutionising HIV treatment and allowing it to be expanded to more than 21 million people across the developing world. Today, MSF treats 285,000 people in HIV/AIDS projects in 21 countries, mostly with generic drugs made in India.
India must call for the suspension of harmful IP measures in RCEP. These provisions closely mirror those originally proposed in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, which were later suspended after outcry from public health advocates about the damaging implications of these policies for access to medicines.
Pressuring countries like India to go beyond patent standards required by the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) – referred to as “TRIPS plus” – is a direct threat to countless people all across the globe who have the right to live long and healthy lives. Negotiators should use their meeting this week to truly put the needs of the people they serve before the private interest of multinational pharmaceutical corporations.