US trade policy puts public health at risk

By ebhatti

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WASHINGTON, DC – The United States is again pushing for stricter levels of intellectual property protection in developing countries that will lock in high drug prices out of poor people’s reach, warned international relief and development organization Oxfam America.

Talks resume in Singapore this week for the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), where the US is expected to insist that countries must take on strict intellectual property protection and drug pricing rules when they sign the deal. At the same time, the US will meet with World Trade Organization members in Geneva to determine whether the world’s poorest countries (least developed countries, or LDCs) can avoid implementing intellectual property rules until they are able to graduate from extreme poverty.

“Between the TPPA negotiations and the meeting of the TRIPS Council, the US will seek in one week to dramatically expand intellectual property rules across most countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa, with damning public health consequences,” said Stephanie Burgos, Oxfam’s America’s senior policy adviser. “For millions of people lacking access to medicines today, these new rules could mean that medicines will not be affordable, for themselves, their families and generations to follow.”

In the past decade, the US has consistently demanded in these trade negotiations that poor countries introduce measures that will increase medicine prices. Despite opposition from many of its trading partners, the US is insisting on intellectual property provisions that introduce an expanded scope of patentability, data exclusivity, patent linkage and patent term extensions, all of which expand drug industry monopolies at the expense of public health.  The US has also proposed new pharmaceutical pricing rules that would hinder the ability of governments to effectively negotiate medicine prices with big drug companies.

In Vietnam, for example, government officials, experts and civil society groups are already worried about the possible impact of the TPPA on medicine prices. Thousands more people could be pushed into poverty, forced to choose between medicines and other basic necessities, or to forego treatment altogether. Many medicines for diseases including cancer and Hepatitis B and C are already unaffordable for most people there.

The TPPA also comes at a bad time for efforts to provide universal treatment to HIV and AIDS. Up to 170,000 people living with HIV and AIDS still require basic treatment in Vietnam and thousands more will soon need new, patented anti-retroviral medicines as they will develop resistance to their current treatments. US proposals will increase these medicine costs too – undermining US global health efforts through PEPFAR, which currently finances more than half of the country’s HIV and AIDS treatment budget.  It will also undermine the Vietnamese government’s future ability to sustain and expand national efforts to address HIV and AIDS, especially after 2015 when the US may stop providing foreign assistance to Vietnam to treat HIV and AIDS.

“The US is putting the interests of the drug industry above those of public health,” said Burgos.  “Not only do US policies fly in the face of commitments made under original World Trade Organization rules and under the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health, they also undermine the effectiveness of the US’s generous aid to pay for treatment in poor countries.”

As the coordinating body that oversees the implementation of the TRIPS Agreement meets in Geneva this week, trade negotiators must decide whether to renew a waiver issued to LDCs that previously delayed implementation of intellectual property rules for medicines until 2016, and a waiver on all other intellectual property rules until June 2013. Least developed countries are the poorest countries in the world, with approximately 80 percent of all people in LDCs – more than 750 million people – living on less than $2 per day.  But the US has been opposing this waiver, even though WTO rules clearly grant LDCs the right to request and have it granted.

“Intellectual property rules have direct and profound impacts on public health, particularly through intellectual property rules, but time and again, the US Trade Representative has insisted on far-reaching rules that expand drug industry monopolies and thus keep the prices of new medicines high,” said Burgos. “Not only does this undermine the sustainability of public health-care programs, this approach has discredited trade itself as a tool for poverty reduction. “The US government must urgently reconsider its approach on trade policy and access to medicines.”

/ENDS