Opinion article |

What Japanese government can and should do for the affordable medicines in the world

Photograph by Brendan Bannon
Counting of medication Co-Trimoxizole at the HIV clinic at Madi Opei health centre, Kitgum District, Uganda, November 3, 2009.

Author: Jérémie Bodin, MSF Japan General Director

Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand together with the 10 ASEAN countries, which comprise the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), are meeting in Kobe this week to continue trade negotiations that will once again pivot on intellectual property.

The RCEP countries not only encompass nearly half of the global population, including some of its most impoverished and marginalised communities, but also include several of the largest producers of affordable medicines and vaccines that are accessed by patients worldwide. Ushering in a treatment revolution, generic competition from India and affordable ingredients needed to produce medicines from China has reduced first-line HIV medicines from, $10,000 per person per year in 2000, to $100 today.

The RCEP agreement, which is anticipated to provide a massive boost to trade, is emerging as a grave threat to affordable treatment for patients globally. Presently, harmful intellectual property rules in the RCEP are being pushed by Japan, home to some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical corporations seeking to secure their presence in the emerging markets in the region. Far beyond the World Trade Organization (WTO) requirements, these measures seek to extend pharmaceutical corporations’ patent terms. They would also delay generic competition, maintain monopolies and add to escalating treatment costs. This would present a grave threat to affordable treatment worldwide.

Aware of the disastrous consequences of unaffordable drug prices, MSF has continually requested wealthy countries to desist from detrimental intellectual property provisions in a number of prior trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Seeking stricter intellectual property rules in free trade agreements undermines health care systems. Intellectual property monopolies will not address emerging global public health challenges.

These challenges include the urgent need for new antibiotics for antimicrobial resistance that the patent system has failed to incentivize despite exorbitant profits. Even today, governments continue to face unsustainably high medicine prices for the treatment of critical diseases like hepatitis C, drug-resistant TB and cancer.

If RCEP like provisions had governed intellectual property 17 years ago, the price of HIV medicines would not have fallen and millions of people with HIV would now be dead. Japan can now play a critical role to prevent a similar nightmare scenario in the future. With proposals to increase the share of generic medicines in its universal health care system, Japan itself has been at the forefront of affordable treatment, both at the UN and through its own leadership at the G7. In Kobe, it can act by withdrawing life-threatening intellectual property proposals from the RCEP.

This article appeared on the Huffington Post Japan (originally published in Japanese) on February 27, 2017