Washington, DC (February 2, 2005) International agency Oxfam America is deeply concerned about US pressure on Guatemala to repeal a law protecting public health recently passed by an overwhelming majority in the Guatemalan congress. The law has been holding up the US administration's plan to move forward with a vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in the US Congress.
"The US Trade Representative [USTR] insisted the Guatemalan government take measures that could limit access to life-saving drugs in Guatemala," said Stephanie Weinberg, Oxfam America's Policy Advisor. "Although included in CAFTA, these measures have now been rejected by the Guatemalan public and their elected representatives in Congress for restricting their rights to public health."
The USTR is calling for provisions that would unduly extend the monopoly period enjoyed by international pharmaceutical companies for marketing their medicines. Health groups in Guatemala, supported by international agencies such as the Pan-American Health Organization and UNICEF, had worked to pass legislation that allowed greater competition from generic drug companies as a method of reducing drug costs in a sustainable way. Although the Guatemalan legislation complies with international intellectual property laws established by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the USTR insisted that the law would be in violation of CAFTA provisions. CAFTA has yet to be ratified by the US or Guatemala.
"If ratified, CAFTA will extend drug patents and limit the ability of Central American governments to introduce generic competition, which is particularly damaging to poor patients who buy medicines out-of-pocket," said Weinberg. "Trade agreements should offer economic opportunity and development, not impediments to public health."
A "side letter" to CAFTA that the USTR suggests will provide a safeguard for public health concerns is not legally binding and includes restrictive language that would serve to limit rights upheld in the WTO.
Last week, 11 Members of the US Congress called on the USTR to cease pressure on Guatemala to adopt new measures giving pharmaceutical companies an extended monopoly over use of clinical test data for marketing drugs, pointing out that CAFTA clearly violates the Doha Declaration establishing the rights of countries to prioritize public health over private patent rights. Congress provided a clear mandate to uphold the Doha Declaration in the Trade Promotion Authority law enacted in 2002.