Fast Company | 21 September 2010
Indian trade agreements could choke AIDS drug lifeline
By Jenara Nerenberg
New numbers reveal just how dependent the world really is on India’s cheap anti-retroviral drugs, but free trade agreements with the EU could bring catastrophic changes to developing nations.
India is the primary supplier of anti-retroviral (ARVs) AIDS drugs in middle and low-income countries. And a report from the Journal of the International AIDS Society reveals just how catastrophic it would be if somehow that supply were to get cut off due to political, trade, or disaster-related causes: In some countries, up to 90% of children with AIDS are dependent on India’s cheap, generic drugs.
Between 2003-2008, "the number of Indian firms supplying ARVs rose from four to ten; while the number of drugs supplied rose from 14 to 53," SciDev.net reports. Beating out all other competitors on price, India’s ARVs are the top choice for some countries, revealing just how innovative the South Asian nation has become in the pharmaceutical industry and just how interdependent countries are to literally keep their citizens alive.
The massive, low-cost ARV production industry in India has been made possible by the country’s patent laws. "Indian laws did not grant patents on a product, but only on a process to make it, which helped its drug firms to make cheaper versions and improved formulations using alternative methods," SciDev.net reports. This may not sound like innovation—as opposed to simply lax policies or government inefficiency—but in a way it does reveal how India’s leaders have allowed a sector to rise up and make the entire country competitive on an international scale.
But not everyone in the world sees those laissez faire patent laws as a good thing. India is in ongoing discussions with the World Trade Organization and the EU, but there is fear that increased patent requirements may dismantle the country’s thriving ARV production industry. The study thus suggests that the international community ensure the maintenance and continuation of India’s ARV productions as they exist now.
"The proposed EU/India free trade agreement ... will be catastrophic. It will deprive hundreds of thousands or even millions of people in developing countries from having access to new life-saving medicines—a problem that will become even more acute as resistance to currently used antiretrovirals increases," said Treatment Access Campaign researcher, Marcus Low.
We’ll watch these developments closely, but mostly with hope that someone, if not India, is able to keep pumping out those life-saving drugs.