25 Jul 2013

Concern at push for drug company patents in Pacific trade deal

5:06 pm on 25 July 2013

The medical non-government organisation, Medicins Sans Frontieres, says it fears the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal could push the cost of drugs to prohibitive levels.

The trade deal, which is being negotiated this week in Malaysia, could include the United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Japan.

Drugs are key to combatting rampant diseases such as tuberculosis, but the public affairs manager, at the NGO's Australian office, Jon Edwards, told Don Wiseman the US is keen to extend the patent coverage of large drug multi nationals as part of the deal.

JON EDWARDS: If we take what has been actually leaked - the negotiating position of the United States trade representatives as being current - and we don't know, because the important thing to know about these allegations is they are conducted behind closed doors. But what we do know from those leaked negotiating positions of the US is that the US is very keen on extending the ability for big pharmaceutical companies, many of which, of course, are US companies, extend their patent coverage of the medicine that they produce in a range of different ways which will have a long-term effect of making prices of medicines higher and therefore reducing the access, particularly in the developing world where, obviously, the purchasing power is very much slower for patients to get those life-saving medicines.

DON WISEMAN: How likely is it that a push like this is going to succeed, do you think?

JE: There's obviously a lot more in a trade agreement than simply access to medicines issues, and there are a lot of competing incentives for countries to sign up to a free trade agreement of this sort. So we do know that these kinds of clauses have been included in other free trade agreements negotiated with the US, so it's a very real concern that it will find its way into the Trans Pacific Partnership. The US has concluded free trade agreements, for example, with the Central American countries and a United Nations development programme report has estimated that the price of drugs for HIV treatment in Costa Rica are set to rise by 50% as a result of Costa Rica signing on to that free trade agreement. Similarly, Jordan and the Middle East signed a free trade agreement with the US and drug prices have been noted to have risen by 20% following the signing of that agreement. So we can see in other cases, in other free trade agreements, countries have signed on knowing that this could be the case and, in fact, we're seeing this happening in the case of Jordan at least, so we need to be... Everyone who is concerned about access to medicines and public health impacts needs to be vigilant.

DW: Are you endeavouring to talk directly with the countries involved in the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations?

JE: MSF, along with a range of other interested parties from civil society and those advocating in the interests of public health and the patients have been attending the negotiations and have been in contact with governments who are party to those negotiations. Just last week, the newest round of negotiations have been underway in Malaysia, and they conclude at the end of this week. Medicins Sans Frontieres International have written to the heads of state and health ministers of all the 11 countries that are part of this negotiation, including New Zealand, urging them to push back on any attempt to extend the intellectual property rights and patent monopolies that drug companies are pushing for through the US trade representatives' negotiating position in order to preserve access to medicines and the public health outcomes that come from that.