THE BLOG

This Secret Trade Deal Contains Threats to Public Health

03/21/2014 10:10 EDT | Updated 05/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Affordable generic drugs save millions of lives. Generic HIV medicines reduced the price of treatment from over $10,000 per person per year in 2001, to just $120 today. This made it possible for more than nine million people to receive treatment in developing countries.

Generic drugs are an essential part of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) programs that treat millions of patients around the world. Generics allow us to provide lifesaving care for as many people as we can with limited resources.

But a trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement could change all of this. Since last year MSF has been trying to get the word out about the serious threat that provisions in the TPP could pose for access to lifesaving medicines, especially in developing countries.

Canadians care about this issue. So far more than 25,000 people have signed a petition on msf.ca urging Prime Minister Harper to make sure the TPP agreement respects Canada's global public health commitments. If you haven't already signed, I encourage you to do so.

Proposed intellectual property rules threaten access to medicines

The TPP is being negotiated in secret, but leaked documents from the negotiations have revealed that the United States is pushing hard for strict intellectual property rules that would protect the profits of pharmaceutical companies at the expense of patients.

These rules would extend patent monopolies and delay the introduction of cheaper generic drugs, allowing the big brand-name drug companies to maintain their high prices for longer periods of time. This would put lifesaving medicines out of reach for millions of poor people around the world. It could also lead to higher drug prices here at home. Further, it could diminish the potential impact of the hundreds of millions of dollars that Canada has committed to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and other global health programs.

"There are better ways to support pharmaceutical innovation, ways that don't deprive poor people of lifesaving medicines."

And patent monopolies are just the beginning. The U.S. also wants to create new data monopolies for already expensive biological medicines, request the patenting of surgical and diagnostic methods, and allow companies to sue governments for patent infringements through unaccountable tribunals. Drug manufacturer Eli Lilly is currently suing the Canadian government for half a billion dollars under the North American Free Trade Agreement in connection with a patent dispute. Provisions contained in the TPP could open the door to even more expensive and extra judicial litigation.

Drug companies argue that tightened intellectual property rules are necessary to support innovation. New drugs cost a lot of money to develop and bring to market and companies need to ensure a reasonable return on their investments. But new research suggests that the supposed high costs of drug development are in fact greatly exaggerated and do not take into account the large number of public investment going into many research and development processes. Furthermore, as Rachel Kiddell-Monroe and I explained in an article published last year in Policy Options, there are better ways to support pharmaceutical innovation, ways that don't deprive poor people of lifesaving medicines.

Governments have long recognized the need to balance public health and intellectual property rights. This was reaffirmed by Canada and other countries in the 2001 WTO Doha declaration and the 2008 WHO Global Strategy. But flawed TPP provisions could scrap these agreements and roll back hard-won advances in global health.

The TPP agreement is being negotiated by Canada, the US and ten other Pacific Rim countries. Yet its impact could be much more wide-reaching. US President Barack Obama said the TPP could be a "model not just for countries in the Pacific region, but for the world." I'm very worried that the harsh terms the US is pushing for in this deal could undermine MSF's ability to care for the millions of patients it treats every year in more than 70 countries.

Canada must stand firm in rejecting harmful TPP provisions

At MSF we are fighting for the most damaging provisions to be removed from the TPP agreement before the final deal is sealed, which could happen later this year. When Wikileaks released the draft intellectual property chapter last fall, we got some encouraging news -- even while some countries are willing to give in to the US government's damaging demands, Canada is pushing back on some of the worse provisions.

At a TPP negotiating meeting in Salt Lake City last November, the US appeared to be giving some ground on access to medicines by offering to give developing countries a slightly better deal. Unfortunately the deal on offer still isn't good enough: there's just too much left out.

"Canada needs to stand firm and insist that provisions that threaten affordable access to medicine are removed before any agreement is signed."

To make matters worse, this US offer runs out when poor countries raise their GDPs enough to be re-classified as "high-income" by the World Bank. But just because a country has entered the global middle class, doesn't mean that its people have also made the jump. About 75 per cent of the world's poorest people live in so-called middle-income countries, and their health is also at stake here. People who only earn a few dollars a day can't afford to pay inflated prices for essential medicines. Because of a lack of money, they may suffer and die. This simply isn't right. There has to be a better balance between profits and public health.

A lot of prominent voices have joined the call to fix the TPP before it's too late, from Pope Francis to Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. In a recent column in the New York Times, fellow Nobel-winner Joseph Stiglitz argued that "the TPP would make the introduction of generic drugs more difficult, and thus raise the price of medicines. In the poorest countries...thousands would die unnecessarily."

We need Canadians to keep up the pressure to let our elected representatives know that the TPP and global health matter to us. This deal could have harmful and lasting consequences for millions of people all over the world. Canada needs to stand firm and insist that provisions that threaten affordable access to medicine are removed before any agreement is signed.

Please, sign MSF's TPP petition and tell Prime Minister Harper that medicines shouldn't be a luxury.

This blog has been edited to correct minor inaccuracies.