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Free trade agreements contain provisions that restrict access to medicines: UNITAID

Times of India, India

Free trade agreements contain provisions that restrict access to medicines: UNITAID

By Rema Nagarajan,TNN

7 April 2014

NEW DELHI: UNITAID, a global health initiative has warned against bilateral and regional trade agreements, pushed mostly by Europe and the US, as such agreements go well beyond traditional trade concerns and include provisions that force extensive obligations related to intellectual property and investor protection which would restrict access to medicines.

The UNITAID in its report titled, "Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA): Implications for Access to Medicines and Public Health" said that the intellectual property obligations proposed in such agreements exceed the minimum standards of the multilateral World Trade Organisation agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS Agreement. These agreements will delay generic market entry and competition and will thus lead to increased prices of pharmaceuticals and the consequent increase in public expenditure for health programmes or in out-of-pocket costs for patients, warned the report.

"Generic competition, particularly from India, persists in reducing prices today, with the prices of first-generation HIV medicines at less than 1% of their 2001 prices. In carrying out its mandate, UNITAID relies on the ability to leverage the effects of competition to reduce prices of pharmaceuticals and to increase access to treatment," pointed out UNITAID adding that the relationship between competition law and intellectual property rights ought not to be understated. India too is currently negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union which has many of the provisions that UNITAID has warned against.

UNITAID is a global health initiative hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva and is in great part financed by a solidarity levy on airline tickets. UNITAID is in the business of negotiating lower prices for drugs and diagnostics which are distributed through several international organisations such as Clinton Health Access Initiative, the Global Fund, Stop TB Partnership, Medecins Sans Frontieres and so on.

The UNITAID report analysed the provision of the TPPA as it has been positioned as a "model" for the 21st century, implying that the same or similar provisions are likely to appear in future trade agreements, including those involving developing countries. Public interest and public health groups, as well as a number of United Nations agencies, have voiced concern over the "TRIPS-plus" provisions in such trade agreements. "A dramatic illustration of the direct impact of TRIPS-plus rules captured global attention when, in 2007 and 2008, shipments of generic medicines from India to other developing countries were detained at European ports on allegations of intellectual property infringement. One of the shipments included an HIV medicine, abacavir sulfate, the purchase of which had been funded by UNITAID and which was destined for a project implemented by the Clinton Foundation in Nigeria," pointed out the report.

"Although in the WTO developing countries succeeded in pressing for the adoption of the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health— which confirmed the right of countries to adopt public-health-friendly and access-sensitive provisions in complying with the TRIPS Agreement’s obligations—the TRIPS-plus provisions in subsequent FTAs limited the effectiveness of the Doha Declaration and undermined flexibilities in TRIPS," stated the report after examining the effect of FTAs already in place and their impact on the developing countries involved in such agreements.

While the promotion of trade and economic growth is certainly important, it must be balanced against the need to ensure a population’s access to needed medicines and its long-term health and well-being, said the report.

How some FTAs provisions undermine public health

* Seek to lower the standards of patentability

* Weaken disclosure requirements when filing for patents which will delay entry of generics when patent period ends

* Try to remove the safeguard of pre-grant opposition, permitting the grant of a greater number of patents on medicines and medical technologies

* Extend the minimum 20-year patent term to compensate for delays in the drug regulatory approval and patent granting processes, thus further delay generic entry