Global Trends by Martin
Monday 28 August 2006
Free trade treaties vs patient’s lives
Last week, there were
conflicting messages were coming out in the media on free trade agreements.
The Asean economic ministers’ meeting in Kuala Lumpur announced an Asean-United
States framework agreement. But development and patients’ groups at
the global AIDS Conference in Toronto attacked free trade agreements
with the United States for preventing people from getting affordable
A significant event at the
Asean economic ministers’ meeting in Kuala Lumpur last week was their
signing of a framework agreement on trade and investment with the United
That is a “non-binding” agreement,
according to reports. However Malaysia and Thailand are negotiating
full-blown legally binding free trade agreements (FTAs) with the US.
There were hopes from both
the American and Malaysian Trade Ministers to conclude their bilateral
treaty by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, half way round
the world, the FTAs that the US has signed or is negotiating with developing
countries were getting bad publicity.
At the world AIDS Conference
in Toronto, the FTAS were blasted for raising the prices of medicines
and preventing those infected with HIV-AIDS and other diseases including
malaria, TB and cancer from getting treatment.
The FTAs signed by the US
tighten patent laws to such a degree that its partners will find it
near impossible to access the much cheaper versions produced by generic
companies, according to a statement by leading NGOs such as Medicins
Sans Frontieres, Oxfam and groups representing patients.
While original AIDS drugs
cost over US$10,000 per patient a year, the prices by Indian generic
companies allowed treatment for only US$150 a year.
A ‘government use” order
issued by the Malaysian government enabled the Health Ministry to cut
costs of treating AIDS patients to one seventh, thus allowing seven
times more patients to be treated for the same budget.
While the World Trade Organisation
allows countries to import or produce generic drugs (sometimes through
a government-issued “compulsory license” or “government use order”),
the FTAs with the US shuts out or restricts such measures through many
provisions, such as restricting the use of compulsory licences.
Under a “data exclusivity”
clause, the US demands that companies or government agencies desiring
to register a generic drug cannot make use of the original company’s
clinical trial and safety data already screened by the health authorities,
even if it can be shown that the generic and original drugs are identical
The result: generic drugs
will not get safety approval and thus cannot be marketed to patients,
even if the government has issued a compulsory license, and even if
the drugs are not under patent in the country.
The Financial Times last
week strongly criticized “US insistence in bilateral trade talks that
developing countries agree to stiffer patent protection rules.
“As well as restricting competition,
the rules would most critically set tighter conditions on poor countries’
freedom to use compulsory licenses to override patents and import essential
medicines they cannot produce locally…
“United Nations members have
pledged to ensure poor nations’ access to affordable essential medicines…Better
ways to honour that pledge must be found. Trade bullying of the weak
by the strong is not one of them.”
At home, the Malaysian AIDS
patients group, MTAAG (Positive Malaysian Access and Advocacy Treatment
Group), last week said in a statement that FTAs are a “death sentence
for people living with HIV/AIDS.”
It said the Malaysian Government issued a government use licence to
import some generic ARVs from India and the monthly cost of government
treatment fell by 81% from US$315 to US$58, increasing the number of
people that can be treated by the Ministry of Health from 1500 people
to 4000 people.
”But this is still very much below the more than 10,000 AIDS cases that
need urgent treatment, and the import licence has also come to an end,”
said the MTAAG.
It remarked that many provisions expected in the FTA with the US Malaysia
are “very alarming” and if Malaysia adopts this obligation, it will
be prevented from importing much needed affordable generic ARVs as it
was able to do in 2003.
”For people living with HIV-AIDS in Malaysia and elsewhere, provisions
such as these are a death sentence.”
The group called on the government not to succumb to the pressures of
the US, and called on the US government to rethink and change its policy
of pressuring other governments.
The Federation of Malaysian
Manufacturers last week also expressed concern on the US demands in
the FTA, saying there is no additional benefit to Malaysia to extend
patent laws beyond what the WTO requires.
The FMM president Datuk Yong
Poh Kon said if patents are extended beyond the WTO rules, manufacturers
would face difficulty to produce generic drugs, and there would also
be a “dangerous position” with regard to software patents.
The worldwide and local concerns
over patents is only one of the controversies surrounding FTAs with
the US and also other countries.
Others issues include investment
rules, and the opening up of goods, services and the government procurement
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