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Thousands march in Washington to protest TPP; groups warn trade deal will put hurdles in front of fight to end AIDS

From photo stream at Huffington Post

From photo stream at Huffington Post

“Thousands of people marched on the White House and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative on Tuesday to protest a new trade agreement that public health experts warn would cut off access to life-saving medications for AIDS patients,” reports Huffington Post. Thirteen people were arrested.

The march was part of a week-long International AIDS Conference in the U.S. capital with demands including “immediate treatment for the thousands of low-income Americans currently on waiting lists for HIV drugs, the full implementation of Obama’s domestic health care reform bill, increased global AIDS relief funding and an end to free trade agreements that inflate the prices of drugs around the world by granting long-term monopolies to pharmaceutical companies,” according to the Post.

Peter Maybarduk, director of the Access to Medicines program with U.S. advocacy group Public Citizen, said on Monday that “ending AIDS will depend in part on massively scaling up access to treatment. A major obstacle is the monopoly power of the giant pharmaceutical companies, which leads to vastly higher costs than could be achieved through expanded generic competition. Today, U.S. trade policy threatens to undermine U.S. AIDS policy. It is very important that the Obama administration rethink its position on trade and access to medicines.”

According to Public Citizen, generic competition has lowered the cost of older HIV/AIDS medication from more than $10,000 per person per year to less than $100. But the high cost of brand name second- and third-line drugs is still limiting the ability of governments to boost access to treatment. As an example, the group lists the AIDS drug lopinavir + ritonavir, which is sold under the brand names Kaletra and Aluvia by Chicago-based pharma company Abbott Laboratories.

“Abbott prices Kaletra at $400 per person, per year in the world’s poorest countries, and much higher — from $1,000 to around $4,000 — in other developing nations,” says the Public Citizen release. In Vietnam this cost is a “key driver” of high second-line treatment costs. But “Obama administration demands for the trade pact would require Vietnam to eliminate legal tools designed to prevent bad patents, including a mechanism that was used recently to successfully challenge a Kaletra patent application and preserve generic competition in India. Vietnam and other TPP countries … could benefit from these tools.”

The TPP trade talks have attracted the ire of Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), which released a report this week stating, “If the U.S.’s demands are accepted, the TPP agreement will impose new IP rules that could severely restrict access to affordable, life-saving medicines for millions of people.” The organization is concerned with Obama’s claim that the TPP should be “a model not just for countries in the Pacific region, but for the world generally.” It worries instead that “the TPP will set a damaging precedent with serious implications for developing countries where MSF works, and beyond.”

The report lists some of the most “egregious U.S. demands affecting access to medicines,” based on leaked copies of the intellectual property chapter:

– Make it impossible to challenge the validity of a patent before it is granted
– Lower the requirements for patentability, so that minor alterations of existing medicines can be given additional protected monopoly status, even if the alteration offers no therapeutic benefit
– Require the patenting of diagnostic, therapeutic and surgical methods
– Lengthen patent monopolies for pharmaceutical firms so that they keep generics out and prop up drug prices for longer periods of time
– Make it harder for generic manufacturers to obtain regulatory approval for their drugs
– Create additional monopolies based on clinical data
– Impose new forms of IP enforcement that give customs officials excessive powers to impound legitimate generic medicines
– Impose higher prices on national pharmaceutical reimbursement programs
– Allow pharmaceutical companies to sue governments and limit governments’ abilities to effectively set prices for medicines and legislate in the interest of public health

MSF also draws attention to the proposed investment chapter in the TPP, which was leaked this year by Public Citizen. Like NAFTA’s Chapter 11 and Canada’s various bilateral free trade and investment agreements, the TPP would allow companies to sue governments if they can show a regulatory decision negatively affects their profits or investment opportunities. According to the MSF report:

The definition given to ‘investment’ in the TPP encompasses intangible investments like intellectual property. Granting companies these rights could therefore undermine TPP governments’ ability to issue regulations to protect public health and promote access to medicines, and expose them to lawsuits by corporations if a company feels their IP rights are being infringed upon by government action.

This could happen if, for example, the government decided to regulate drug prices. The company could claim the government’s action negatively impacts their ‘investment’ in the country.

Similar IP demands as in the TPP are being made of Canada in free trade and investment negotiations with the European Union. And like in the TPP, Canada is proposing that “intellectual property” be included in the definition of a covered investment. However, based on a February 2012 leaked copy of the CETA text, Canada is also asking to be able to derogate from National Treatment, Most Favoured Nation and Performance Requirements rules in CETA in a manner consistent with certain safeguards in the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs). But given the IP commitments at the WTO, and the threats to access to medicine from CETA and the TPP, there is no reason to negotiate these chapters in either agreement.

On July 9, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network issued a statement related to how laws can help or hinder government responses to HIV. The statement proposed that, “Canada should also demand the removal of any intellectual property provisions in ongoing trade negotiations for the Canada European Union Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Evermore stringent patent barriers and high prices for medicines will mean that millions of people continue to die because they simply cannot afford lifesaving treatment.”