14 October 2016 — As negotiators for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement prepare to meet in Tianjin, China, from 17-21 October, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/Doctors Without Borders urges the 16 negotiating countries to reject any terms in the deal that will harm access to medicines. Countries should uphold the recommendations of the recent report issued by the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Access to Medicines, which warns of the harmful effects that trade agreements can have on access to medicines if certain terms are included.
The countries in the RCEP agreement include India – known as ‘the pharmacy of the developing world’ for its export of affordable generic medicines – as well as Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the ten ASEAN countries.
“Hundreds of thousands of people diagnosed with HIV and tuberculosis in MSF projects are today alive and healthy, thanks to affordable Indian generic medicines. This would not have been possible without the progressive health safeguards in India’s patent system that protect and encourage generic competition”, said Peter Paul de Groote, General Director of MSF India. “We call on the countries negotiating the RCEP agreement to remove all harmful provisions from this trade deal that could jeopardise access to lifesaving, affordable medicines sourced from India. Millions of lives across the developing world are at stake in this trade deal.”
The leaked draft of the RCEP agreement reveals that Japan and South Korea have proposed provisions that extend pharmaceutical corporations’ patent terms and introduce the worst form of monopolies on clinical trial data. The enforcement provisions are a blank cheque for abuse, with numerous provisions that will prevent the flow of generic medicines from producer to patient.
One problematic provision is data exclusivity – a legal protection that blocks more affordable generic versions of medicines from being registered and available in a country, even when there are no patent barriers. In Jordan, for example, where data exclusivity was introduced as part of the US-Jordan Free Trade Agreement, a study found that between 2002-2006, 81 of the 103 medicines registered and launched since 2001 had no generic competition as a consequence of data exclusivity, and that prices for these medicines were up to 800% higher than in neighbouring Egypt.
“We’ve seen affordable generic medicines being pushed out from the market and prices skyrocket when a country grants data exclusivity” said Jessica Burry, Pharmacist for MSF’s Access Campaign. “Negotiators for the RCEP agreement shouldn’t simply hand pharmaceutical corporations a backdoor way to charge exorbitant prices for longer.”
While any harmful intellectual property provisions accepted in the agreement would be detrimental for all negotiating countries, India’s inclusion in the agreement is cause for particular concern. India’s generic pharmaceutical industry is a lifeline for millions of people around the world, especially for people in developing countries. Today, 17 million people living with HIV are on lifesaving treatment thanks to affordable generic HIV medicines produced in India. Two-thirds of all medicines that MSF purchases to treat people with HIV, tuberculosis and malaria are generic medicines produced in India.
If India signs up to a bad deal for access to medicines in the RCEP agreement, its production and export of generic medicines will be threatened. The world looks to India to provide the affordable generic medicines and vaccines required to address emerging public health challenges, including drug-resistant tuberculosis, viral hepatitis, non-communicable diseases and anti-microbial resistance.
“The recent report by the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Access to Medicines clearly indicates that bilateral and regional trade agreements with heightened intellectual property protection and enforcement endanger countries’ efforts to ensure access to medicines and run counter to their human rights obligations,” said Rohit Malpani, Director of Policy & Analysis for MSF’s Access Campaign. I hope the countries negotiating the RCEP trade agreement have paid attention to this report’s recommendations and will think twice before signing a deal that will be bad for access to medicines.”
In 2015, MSF launched a campaign - #HandsOffOurMeds handsoff.msf.org – to urge Indian Prime Minister to protect India’s production of life-saving affordable generic medicines.