Recently, we filed an official complaint with the United Nations asking the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health to call on President Obama to halt Bush-era trade policies that deny people’s access to life-saving medicines.
Joined by groups of people living with HIV and their supporters from India, Thailand, Kenya, Malaysia, and Costa Rica, we filed an official complaint showing how the United States, working side by side with multinational pharmaceutical companies, is using its trade policies to coerce countries to adopt intellectual property policies that increase the costs of medicines and violate the human rights of their citizens. Honestly, I thought this was over with President Obama replacing Bush, but it’s not and Africa’s AIDS medicines are on the line.
What’s the issue? Each year the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) puts out a “watch list” of countries–known as “Special 301”–which threatens sanctions against foreign countries for their intellectual property laws. Often this is about pirated DVDs or other less life-or-death questions, but it also includes focuses on countries’ pharmaceutical patents and policies. The USTR is demanding countries like India adopt all sorts of strange laws that try to prevent generic (think CVS brand vs. Advil) companies from competing and threatening countries with sanctions if they don’t. These include making clinical trial data submitted to the government into secret private information that cannot be used to prove that a generic version of the same drug is safe and requiring governments to allow tiny changes in a drug (like replacing a tablet with a capsule) to extend the life of a patent.
The basic standards for Intellectual Property in medicines have already been established at the World Trade Organization, and they don’t require countries to adopt these policies. In fact, the world declared that countries have a right to prioritize the health of their population over pharmaceutical patents.
Patents matter. We have reached 5 million people with AIDS treatment only because prices on the earliest drugs–which weren’t patented–fell dramatically. From tens of thousands of dollars for name-brands to just over $80 per year for generics. This has enabled millions of people in Africa to get acccess to treatment.
But where do these drugs come from?
Mostly India–pharmacy to the developing world. In 2010 the U.S. put countries including Thailand, India, and Brazil–key manufacturers of AIDS drugs for African and other developing nations–on these lists for failing to adopt intellectual property laws that would prevent a lot of generics from making drugs.
If we drive up the cost of drugs, fewer people get them and we waste hundreds of millions of dollars in US-taxpayer dollars to boot. President Obama promised to support the rights of countries to make low-cost AIDS medicines available to their people, but instead his trade representative is threatening countries who are doing just that.
An example stands out: In Thailand recently they issued a “compulsory license” to allow the country to buy or make a generic version of a certain AIDS drug (and pay the original company royalties) when the company refused to sell them the medicine at an affordable cost. What happened? The U.S. put them on its watch list to threaten trade sanctions.
At our announcement of the complaint, Supatra Nakapew of the Foundation for AIDS Rights in Thailand said, “Due to compulsory licenses, a great number of Thai patients now have access to essential medicines for free through the national health insurance system and have regained their quality of life. Through the complaint submitted to the Special Rapporteur for the Right to Health, we urge the U.S. government to respect human rights and stop pressuring Thailand and other developing countries. “
We didn’t just call the UN. We’ve been fighting this for years and I’ve personally met with U.S. Trade Representative’s staff many times. But I think the issue is trapped among the mid-level bureaucrats at the U.S.T.R.’s office. We testified with a range of health experts at hearing on Special 301. They listened, nodded, and did the exact same thing but with nicer language. This issue is just too important to be decided by Bush administration hold overs–it’s literally life or death. We need presidential leadership.
Here’s hoping its on the way.
Matthew Kavanagh is an AIDS and human rights activist and Director of US Advocacy at Health GAP (Global Access Project). He was previously the director of Global Justice, a national human rights organization working on AIDS, trade, and child heath, and is an active member of the AIDS activist group DC Fights Back. He has worked with a wide variety of NGOs and social-movement organizations in the US, Latin America, and Southern Africa—recently on water rights and Apartheid reparations campaigns in Johannesburg. He has written articles and curricula on issues ranging from US family law to the economic roots of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.
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