Spotlight on: Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)

Photograph by Siddharth Singh
Civil society demonstration against IP provisions in RCEP that can block access to affordable medicines during the 6th round of negotiations. 3rd December 2014

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement includes provisions that threaten access to medicines

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement is being negotiated in secret, without input from public health stakeholders. A leaked draft of the negotiating text has revealed some proposed provisions that could undermine access to price-lowering, generic medicines, and thus, life-saving treatment to millions of people in the developing world.

Since 2012, the RCEP trade agreement has been under negotiation between the ten members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) members (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and the six countries that have existing trade agreements with ASEAN: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea. Notably, the RCEP countries are home to nearly 50% of the world’s population, which include some of the most impoverished and marginalised communities.

The leaked draft of RCEP’s negotiating text on intellectual property (IP) and investment reveals proposals that apply to pharmaceutical products, which could affect access to affordable medicines and biomedical innovation across the Asia Pacific region. 

According to the leaked text, Japan and the Republic of Korea are pushing for provisions that go far beyond international trade rules (known as TRIPS-plus rules) to extend drug corporations’ patent terms and introduce the most damaging form of clinical trial data monopolies. Further, the proposed elevated levels of intellectual property enforcement would delay generic competition and translate into higher prices for lengthier periods of time, which would, in turn, prevent the flow of affordable generic medicines from producer to patient. These provisions offer pharmaceutical corporations a blank cheque for abuse. In developing countries, where people rarely have health insurance and must pay for medicines out of pocket, high prices keep life-saving medicines out of reach – and this is often a matter of life and death.

As a medical humanitarian organisation working in nearly 70 countries, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is concerned that proposed provisions in the intellectual property and investment chapters could potentially restrict a government’s capacity to initiate and execute policies to protect public health and ensure affordable access to medicines for all, in particular in developing countries where most of MSF’s operations are based.