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Free trade deals to push up cost of medicines

India Today

Free trade deals to push up cost of medicines

By Savita Varma, New Delhi

6 September 2009

The bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) India is negotiating with Japan and the European Union (EU) can lead to a sharp rise in the cost of medicines, a network of civil society groups has warned.

The FTAs are discussed outside the parameters of equitable international trade endorsed by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Through them, developed countries often impose higher levels of intellectual property protection for medicines than those mandated by the WTO’s TRIPS agreement.

In some cases, the terms are even harsher than those practised within the developed world, says the ’Forum Against FTAs’, a conglomeration of some 75 NGOs. It wants the government to be transparent about these deals and hold discussions with all stakeholders before committing to them.

The worrying terms of the FTAs include the extension of patents beyond 20 years; data exclusivity, which delays the entry of a generic medicine in a market by 10-15 years even after the expiry of a patent; and the patent-registration linkage, which prevents the registration of a generic manufacturer before the expiry of patent.

"These are all ploys to maintain the monopoly of patent holders and keep the prices high by delaying the entry of generic versions of medicines. Multinationals such as Abbot, Glaxo, Pfizer, Bayer, Roche, Sanofi and Novartis have been seeking these changes," a spokesperson of the forum said.

India has already carried out 10 rounds of negotiations with Japan, six rounds with the EU and three rounds with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which includes Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein as its members.

"The government refused to include some measures suggested by the EU. But it is under great pressure," the spokesperson said. After countries like Peru and Colombia signed such agreements, the prices of medicines went up.

Thailand was also considering an agreement with the US, which was not signed after fierce public opposition.

Despite opposition from the Kerala government against some provisions of the FTA with ASEAN, the government went ahead with it.

"These arrangements not only erode flexibilities allowed by the Doha declaration, which established superiority of public health, but also impose a number of additional obligations which can restrict access to medicines," said the spokesperson. "It is time to test the Right to Information (RTI) Act in the context of these agreements, which requires sharing of information on a proactive basis."