Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Health

EU-India Deal Could Kill a Health Lifeline

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Apr 27 2010 (IPS) - Life-saving medicines could become too costly for the world’s poor after a new trade agreement between the European Union and India comes into effect, public health activists have warned.

Brussels officials are seeking that robust rules on intellectual property be approved by India when talks aimed at finalising a free trade deal get under way this week.

At least three of the provisions in a leaked version of the agreement have been identified as a potential risk to India’s status as the leading manufacturer and exporter of non-branded medicines.

One of these clauses would introduce a so-called ‘data exclusivity’ regime, whereby an Indian company making generic drugs would be prohibited from availing of formulae used to develop a patented medicine for a period of five to nine years.

Another would extend the length of patents applying in India beyond a standard duration of 20 years to include the extra time – frequently measured in years – that it takes a regulatory office to examine a patent application. And a third clause would introduce controversial ‘border protection’ measures, under which generic medicines have been seized at European ports, into Indian law.

Michelle Childs, a campaigner with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, said that “millions of lives are at stake” in the trade talks because India is the source of 80 percent of drugs used by her organisation in its humanitarian aid work.

Until 2005, India did not issue patents for medicines. Its exemption from intellectual property regulations applying in wealthier countries enabled India’s makers of non-branded drugs to drive down the price of the most commonly-used treatments for AIDS from 10,000 dollars per patient in 2000 to less than 80 dollars per patient a decade later.

Childs was especially scathing of the EU’s demands that ‘border protection’ should be brought within the agreement’s scope. During 2008 and last year 18 shipments of generic medicines from India to other countries were impounded while in transit in Europe, reportedly after large corporations alleged that their patents had been violated. The Dutch customs authorities, for example, seized 49kg of abacavir sulphate, an AIDS medicine, while it was being transported from India to Nigeria, where it was due for use in a project run by the Clinton Foundation, a charitable initiative of former U.S. president Bill Clinton.

Following these seizures, the European Commission announced that it would re-examine the effectiveness of customs rules dating from 2003.

According to officials, they are supposed to thwart the trade in counterfeit goods, not that involving bona fide generic medicines. Childs argues that the EU should not be pushing India to adopt similar rules, at a time when the review of the Union’s own measures has still not been completed.

“The reality is that the provisions which they are seeking to insert in the free trade agreement have already been shown to affect generic medicines,” she told IPS. “It is irresponsible at best – and at worst, this will have negative effects – to try and export what we know are flawed provisions.”

John Clancy, the European Commission’s trade spokesman, claimed that the use of the customs regulations to block transports of generic medicines is “rare” and that his colleagues are seeking to resolve the surrounding issues.

“The Commission is 100 percent behind efforts to ensure access to medicines that are very important in saving lives of poor people in poor countries,” he said. “Nothing in this agreement will limit the flexibility of India in producing for export medicines that are essential in saving lives.”

But an Indian man diagnosed as HIV positive in 1997 said that the EU is “undermining our right to life”.

“They are interfering with our immune system,” Loon Gangte, president of the Delhi Network of Positive People, said. “They have said many times that access to medicines will not be hampered. But the leaked text has all the provisions they need to take away our medicines.”

Both the EU and India have signalled that they wish to have a trade agreement wrapped up ahead of a summit between the two sides slated for October. BusinessEurope, the grouping for the largest corporations on this continent, has identified India as one of the most attractive markets for selling their wares and for investing.

Dave Tucker from War on Want, a London-based anti-poverty group, complained that multinational companies are pushing for a trade agreement that would prevent India from restricting public works contracts to Indian firms. Public procurement has traditionally been used to help poorer economies develop without outside interference but European companies want to deny India the possibility to do so, he added.

He also said that Indian entrepreneurs would struggle to compete with European imports once tariffs levied on them are removed as part of the agreement’s implementation. “It will be a disaster for India’s manufacturing sector, which needs protection,” he said. “Protection shouldn’t be a dirty word. It has proven to be a vital part of development strategies – including for ourselves, in the past.”

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