EU-India FTA Will Not Hurt Generic Drug Makers: Minister
India's Commerce and Industry Minister, Anand Sharma, announced on Monday that the free-trade agreement now under negotiation with the European Union will not harm India's flourishing pharmaceuticals industry.
Sharma's announcement to reporters in New Delhi follows outbursts from several critics who worry that the potential deal, which will enter its final round of negotiations next month, could hurt India's generic drugs industry.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the medical advocacy group also known as Doctors Without Borders, voiced one of the most serious critiques of the agreement in a press release two weeks ago. It warned that the intellectual property concessions that the EU is asking India to accept would "seriously hamper access to medicines for millions of people living in the developing world."
But Sharma says such criticisms are unfounded. "We will not allow any injury to be caused to the Indian generics industry," the Indian minister said in response to a question from the press. "We will protect the Indian pharmaceutical industry."
India, which supplies 92 percent of the AIDS medicine currently used in developing countries, is widely considered the "pharmacy of the developing world." The industry also supplies other generic drugs at very inexpensive prices to impoverished people worldwide, especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
India bowed to international trade rules in 2005 and began granting patents on medicines, but the government has been careful to include measures to limit abusive patenting and protect public health. MSF stated that the agreement, as pushed by the EU, "threatens to impose even higher standards of intellectual property protection, enabling companies to maintain prohibitively high prices on medicines."
A leaked version of the EU-India FTA negotiating text is available online. As it currently reads, it includes several intellectual property measures which would affect access to generic medicines: data exclusivity, extended patent terms and border measures.
Despite Sharma's assurances, some critics still fear that the world's cache of cheap medicine is at risk.
"We are marching to call on the Indian government not to trade away our lives," said Loon Gangte, president of the Delhi Network of Positive People (DNP+), a support group for people living with HIV/AIDS. "Lifelong treatment for people living with HIV depends on continued access to newer AIDS medicines. Because of international trade rules that India has already signed in the past, some of our newer AIDS medicines are already patented and completely unaffordable. We are protesting against India's accepting terms that would further compromise access to life-saving medicine."
In a letter of response to Sharma's statement, Gangte wrote that DNP+ was "dismayed" that the Indian government's "only concern in these negotiations is whether there will be injury to the domestic industry or not."
"If these TRIPS-plus provisions are accepted, there will be great ‘injury' to people living with HIV, TB, cancer, asthma and other diseases in India and other developing countries," he added, asking the government to halt negotiations until it has consulted the public.
Trade negotiations between the EU and India have been ongoing since 2007. Both sides hope to overcome hang-ups on child labour, environment and market access to finalise the agreement in October of this year.
ICTSD reporting; "Planned EU deal won't hit generic drug firms-India," REUTERS, 22 March 2010; "EU FTA won't hurt domestic drug cos: Sharma," INDIAN EXPRESS, 23 March 2010.