[Ip-health] Op-ed: "Stand up for affordable medicine" (Ottawa Citizen, 29 Nov 2013)

Richard Elliott relliott at aidslaw.ca
Mon Dec 2 10:09:25 PST 2013


Op-Ed: Stand up for affordable medicine
By Richard Elliott 

Ottawa Citizen
November 29, 2013
Bullies count on secrecy and apathy to get away with it. And bullying, especially by the U.S., is precisely what is going on now with the latest round of secretive trade talks aimed at finalizing a new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement between Canada, the U.S. and 10 other countries.

The question is: Will Canada be an opportunistic junior partner? A complicit bystander? Or will Canada stand up for Canadians and be a good global citizen defending global health, for which it regularly professes concern?

There is intense pressure to agree on a final TPP deal when trade ministers meet in Singapore in a week. Many of the governments involved - including the U.S., as bully-in-chief - are calling this the "end game" of the negotiations. According to reports from last week's meetings in Salt Lake City, chief negotiators have prepared a long list of final decisions for Singapore, where the ministers are expected to make political trade-offs on the outstanding thorny issues that remain unresolved, including the provisions on intellectual property.

Access to affordable medicines for millions of people, including Canadians, could be one of those things traded away - unless Canadians speak up now.
For months, health groups have been sounding the alarm. Médecins Sans Frontières has warned that the TPP could become "the most harmful trade pact ever for access to medicines in developing countries."

But if you haven't heard much about this so far, it's because the TPP negotiations have been happening in secret, behind closed doors.

Until now.

Two weeks ago, WikiLeaks leaked online the full text of the TPP section dealing with medicine patents. The leak confirmed the fears: the U.S. is pushing hard for even greater privileges for brand-name pharmaceutical companies.

The proposed new rules in the intellectual property chapter would expand and prolong their patent monopolies on drugs, at the expense of affordable medicines for millions of people.

Another chapter would weaken the ability of Canada and other countries to prevent excessive drug pricing, by creating more opportunities for pharmaceutical companies to undermine provincial and federal government decisions on how drugs get covered under the formularies used by their public health insurance programs.

And yet another chapter on "investment" could give drug companies - in one of the most profitable industries in the world - greater rights to sue sovereign governments over measures they claim interfere with their "expectations" of profit. In fact, Canada is already facing an unprecedented suit by Eli Lilly under this sort of chapter in an existing trade agreement (NAFTA), which only highlights the dangers of including yet more such measures in the TPP.

Giving in to the demands from the U.S. and Big Pharma would hit people in developing countries the hardest. But it would be damaging and dangerous for Canadians as well, meaning even higher drug costs and therefore more pressure on provincial and federal governments, and private insurance plans, to deny coverage for the medicines Canadians need.

The U.S. and the Conservative government have said they see the TPP as setting a new model for future, broader trade agreements extending to even more countries - and therefore affecting millions more people in countries with limited resources and facing terrible health challenges such as the HIV pandemic.

However, the leaked text also gives some cause for hope. It shows that several countries in the TPP negotiations have been resisting the worst excesses being pushed by the US and Big Pharma.

So far, this appears to include Canada.

This isn't to say that Canada is fully supporting maximum flexibility for countries to protect public health and staunchly defending access to affordable medicines. That would be a dangerous and premature conclusion, and we don't know for sure what Canada is up to in the negotiations. Despite repeated requests, the government refuses to reveal that.

But an analysis of the leaked text does show that Canada and four other countries have put forward counter-proposals that, for the most part, preserve the flexibility that countries are supposed to have under existing rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) when it comes to pharmaceutical policy.

Canada's negotiators should be applauded for standing up to the pressure from the U.S. and Big Pharma.

But we cannot be complacent. There is intense pressure to trade away health and other public interests in order to conclude an agreement.

Too many people already suffer and die because the medicines they need are too expensive. Canada should not stand by as the TPP threatens to restrict access even further.

And don't you think, just maybe, the government should come clean with Canadians about its own negotiating positions and what's in the TPP deal before agreeing to it? After all, we're the ones who have to live with the consequences.

And for lots of people elsewhere, they won't live with the consequences. They'll die.

Richard Elliott is the Executive Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

Richard Elliott
Executive Director | Directeur général
Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network | Réseau juridique canadien VIH/sida 
+1 416 595-1666 (ext./poste 229) | relliott at aidslaw.ca
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