Press release |

Access to affordable medicines under attack in the Americas

28 August 2003 — Today, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urged countries in the Americas to reject US efforts to strengthen intellectual property (IP) protection beyond global standards in the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations. MSF launched a campaign demanding that IP provisions be removed from the proposed regional trade agreement altogether - a position also advanced publicly by Brazil.

The ongoing FTAA negotiations aim to create the largest free trade zone in the world: a US$ 13 trillion market covering 34 countries in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. The proposed agreement includes draft intellectual property provisions that would severely restrict access to affordable medicines by imposing IP regimes more stringent than in any other region in the world.

“People in Guatemala already have frightening little access to essential medicines,” says Luis Villa, MSF’s Head of Mission in Guatemala. “67,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in Guatemala, but only 1,500 receive antiretroviral treatment. MSF is treating almost one-third of them with quality generic drugs. If the ability to buy generics is restricted, it will become almost impossible to treat people with HIV AIDS. Many will die as a result.”

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) contains safeguards to ensure that intellectual property protection does not hamper access to critical products, such as life-saving medicines. In 2001, the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and public health reaffirmed the importance of these provisions by stating that protection of public health takes priority over private commercial interests. This global effort was supported by all countries currently negotiating FTAA.

The proposed FTAA agreement, however, goes much further than standards set out in the TRIPS Agreement. For instance, the US is proposing to extend patent terms beyond the 20 years required by TRIPS, and to limit the circumstances under which compulsory licenses may be issued. These ‘TRIPS-plus’ provisions would dramatically restrict access to affordable versions of lifesaving medicines in the Americas. The impact on the lives of millions of people living with HIV/AIDS and other diseases could be catastrophic. The proposed FTAA Agreement is by no means the only attempt to impose such measures on developing countries around the world, but it is one of the most far-reaching and extreme.

“MSF has seen first hand the damaging effects of strong patent protection in developing countries,” says Bernard Pécoul, director of MSF’s Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. “Generic competition is just starting to bring life-saving medicines into people’s reach, but if FTAA imposes stricter rules, drug prices will inevitably shoot up. Developing countries must resist pressure to negotiate their people’s health.”

Generic competition is the most important, reliable and powerful means of reducing drug prices in low- and middle-income countries in the Americas and elsewhere. In recently concluded negotiations between ten Latin American countries and pharmaceutical companies, prices of antiretroviral treatment fell from as much as US$5,000 to US$ 365 per patient per year. Governments were able to save up to 93% because they could purchase from generic firms. By strengthening IP protection, FTAA will destroy this price dynamic, and access to medicines will be denied to the people who need them most.

MSF today released ‘Trading Away Health’, a report on the impact of FTAA on access to medicines, and launched an international petition calling on ministers of trade to uphold their obligations to give priority to people’s health over commercial interests by keeping IP out of FTAA. Medicines should not be luxury goods.