There are genuine concerns that the Free Trade Agreement India is finalising with the European Union can prove detrimental to health equity. Supply of low cost generic medicines to patients within the country and in less-developed nations should not in any way be threatened by a treaty that may further tighten an already rigid global regime represented by the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPs). This singularly important issue has been engaging the public health community in India and elsewhere for a long time now and the Centre must take the country into confidence on the text of the India — EU FTA. The history of trade agreements is replete with instances of big pharmaceutical companies lobbying to shoehorn provisions into them to delay or stop the production and distribution of generic drugs. The protests being witnessed against a restrictive FTA with the EU echo the sentiments expressed by AIDS campaigners in Morocco in 2004 against drug companies pressuring U.S. negotiators working on an FTA to ensure delayed introduction of generic medicines. It is such special interests that India must prevent from asserting themselves.
The Centre should pay closer attention to the report of the Planning Commission’s High Level Expert Group on Universal Health Coverage, which calls for vigilance against FTAs containing restrictive elements. Among the key recommendations is one that says any Data Exclusivity Clause in such an agreement should be removed, as it would extend the life of patents and facilitate evergreening. Also important is the suggestion to set up a National Health Promotion and Protection Trust that should, among other things, assess the likely impact of free trade agreements on access to medicines. Viewed from a commercial perspective, any straitjacket treaty is likely to mean a setback to Indian pharmaceutical exports. It is worth pointing out here that EU ports have, in the past, seized Indian generics destined for developing countries. Accepting stricter patent norms can only intensify such actions. As Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz points out in his analyses of globalisation, TRIPs was designed to increase the price of medicines. Depressingly, in spite of the rising cost to patients and massive revenues for pharmaceutical companies, the profits have not led to remedies for diseases affecting poor countries. Considerable research funding is devoted instead to discovering drugs for lifestyle diseases. The priority for India should be to preserve the existing provisions in global agreements and domestic patent law that facilitate production of generics, stop evergreening of drugs and enable compulsory licensing.