Trans-Pacific Trade Deal Threatens Access to Affordable Medicines

As host to both AIDS conference and TPP trade talks this month, Malaysia reportedly vows to reject a TPP trade agreement that harms access to medicines; other countries should follow suit, and Malaysia should be held to its pledge.

KUALA LUMPUR, JULY 3, 2013—Countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement* with the US should follow Malaysia’s lead in refusing harmful intellectual property proposals and assuring that people will continue to be able to access affordable medicines in the future, stressed the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC), Third World Network (TWN), Positive Malaysian Treatment Access & Advocacy Group (MTAAG+), and the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today at the International AIDS Society conference.

"By hosting an international AIDS conference, Malaysia is demonstrating its commitment to global health, and as host of the next round of TPP trade negotiations in just two weeks, Malaysia should solidify this commitment by firming up its recent pledge not to accept harmful provisions in the trade deal that will harm access to medicines, including HIV medicines," said Edward Low, director of MTAAG+. "The Malaysian minister of international trade and industry Mustapha Mohamed recently said that Malaysia wouldn’t sign the TPP trade deal if it will cause medicine prices to rise. This is a very encouraging statement, and we plan to hold him to his word."

As delegates meet in Kuala Lumpur for the IAS conference, the alarm is being raised that time is running out to fix the flawed TPP agreement, which currently contains a number of proposals from the US that, if agreed upon, will block access to low-cost generic medicines for people in developing countries. The US, in particular, is pushing hard for countries to accept intellectual property provisions that will extend monopoly protection on high-priced pharmaceuticals and delay the entry of affordable generic medicines into developing countries.

"Most HIV drugs needed by people who have developed resistance to their first set of medicines are already priced too high for publicly-funded treatment programs in countries negotiating the TPP," said Leena Menghaney of MSF’s Access Campaign. “As more and more people medically require a new regimen of HIV drugs, we could be looking at a potential crisis, where people aren’t able to get the lifesaving treatment they need. If countries sign up to the TPP agreement that makes access to affordable HIV medicines more difficult, the HIV response in these countries will be under serious threat.”

Several of the provisions being pushed by the US facilitate the practice of so-called "evergreening," whereby pharmaceutical companies undermine access to affordable medicines by using a variety of tactics to extend monopoly protection on drugs beyond the initial 20-year patent period. For example, companies obtain multiple secondary patents on a single drug so that even when patents on the original compound expire, the product is protected for years by a thicket of patents that prevents procurement of more affordable generic versions. Countries that sign the TPP will have to amend their patent laws to abide by whatever provisions are in the final agreement. If the TPP were signed today with the proposals pushed by the US, it would be more difficult for countries to limit the abusive practice of evergreening.

India is one country that limits evergreening through a part of its patent law called Section 3d, which discourages companies from getting a new 20-year patent on obvious changes made to an existing drug. The April decision by the Indian Supreme Court against Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis’s seven-year legal case against the government reaffirmed the importance of India’s law for public health.

However, if the TPP measures are introduced, Section 3d-like laws in TPP countries would be banned, making it much easier for drug companies to extend their market monopolies and delay the availability of affordable generic versions of their drugs.

"If countries like Malaysia and Vietnam are part of an agreement that hinders the availability of affordable generics, people living with HIV who have exhausted all other treatment options will again face death," said Fifa Rahman of MAC. "In Malaysia, we are already paying some of the highest prices for HIV drugs among developing countries—the TPP trade deal could make this bad situation even worse."

*TPP countries are the US, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Canada, and Mexico. Japan is joining the talks shortly.