By Leena Menghaney, Head—South Asia, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Access Campaign.
Officials from the 16 countries negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal—which includes the ten ASEAN member states, plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea— are meeting this week for another round of negotiations.
Ironically, the venue is the city of Hyderabad, the hub of the Indian generic drug industry. It will host the intellectual property (IP) negotiations that seek to curb the ability of Indian manufacturers to deliver lifesaving medicines to the world. Médecins Sans Frontières and other actors depend on these medicines to provide critical care where it's most needed.
An online leaked draft text of this trade deal reveals that , if accepted, certain provisions will delay access to affordable medicines by restricting generic competition and maintaining monopoly pricing.
RCEP countries are home to nearly half of the global population, including some of the world's most impoverished and marginalised communities. Like the city of Hyderabad itself, they are also home to some of the world's largest producers of affordable medicines and vaccines used across Asia and around the world to provide affordable treatment to patients. Generic competition from India and the availability of affordable active pharmaceutical ingredients (API)—the raw materials needed to produce these drugs—from China have ushered in a treatment revolution in developing countries, bringing down, for example, the price of first-line HIV medicines by 99% since 2001.
Although media headlines tend to focus on the agreement as a "massive boost" to trade, what is overlooked is the critical impact the agreement poses to affordable treatment for billions of people.
Presently, the proposed provisions regarding expansion of intellectual property monopolies in RCEP are being pushed by Japan, which is home to some powerful pharmaceutical corporations that are in competition with generic manufacturers from India, China and other RCEP countries.
An online leaked draft text of this trade deal reveals that Japan and South Korea have proposed several provisions that go far beyond the current trade requirements of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and seek to extend the term of patent monopolies of pharmaceutical corporations and are demanding data exclusivity that limits competition—even for older medicines that do not deserve and may not have a patent monopoly. If accepted, such measures will delay access to affordable medicines by restricting generic competition and maintaining monopoly pricing, adding to the pressure of escalating treatment costs and leaving patients struggling to afford their lifesaving treatments for longer.
Over the last decade, whether RCEP or other trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the EU-India FTA negotiations, MSF has repeatedly called for wealthy countries to stop pushing and to withdraw these harmful provisions.
We call on RCEP countries to reject harmful IP provisions and ensure access to affordable treatment for people across the globe who depend on generic medicines from India and other RCEP countries.
We know too well from addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis in the late 1990s, the disastrous consequences that unaffordable drug prices have for our patients in the developing world. Today many governments are facing the reality of unsustainably high prices for the treatment of hepatitis C, cancer and other diseases as their drugs are priced at thousands of dollars with the inclusion of exorbitantly priced patented medications.
Seeking more expansive IP monopolies in trade agreements not only undermines healthcare systems but also ignores the fact that the current model of pharmaceutical IP monopolies fails to deliver for emerging global public health challenges such as the urgent need for new antibiotics to combat antimicrobial resistance. At the same time, while Japan is pushing for these rules, it has also been at the forefront of these discussions on reform, both at the UN and through its own leadership in the G7. In fact, Japan has several proposals pending nationally to increase the share of generic medicines in the country's universal healthcare system to stem the rise in healthcare costs.
These are some of the reasons why the recent report by the UN High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines recommends that governments engaged in bilateral and regional trade and investment treaties should ensure that these agreements do not include IP provisions that interfere with their obligations to fulfill the right to health.
As we mobilise with patient and health groups in Hyderabad, we call on RCEP countries to heed this advice, reject harmful IP provisions and ensure access to affordable treatment for billions of people across the globe who depend on generic medicines from India and other RCEP countries.