Fears Confirmed: Access to medicines and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

November 13, 2015

Last week, the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement was finally made public. Running to more than 6000 pages, it raises a host of grave concerns about its impact on everything from environmental protection to labour and other human rights, from internet privacy to food safety… and much more, including access to affordable medicines.

Before the final text was released, alarm bells were already ringing: Médecins Sans Frontières has called the TPP “the most harmful trade pact ever for access to medicines” — and not just for those in the negotiating countries, but for many more, since the TPP is being billed as a model for future trade agreements across the globe.

What’s the threat?

As we outlined in our open letter to the federal government, various aspects of the TPP are cause for concern when it comes to access to medicines:

  • New intellectual property (IP) rules on patents, as well as rules on “data exclusivity” over information submitted to get marketing approval of drugs, would be even more restrictive than what already exist at the World Trade Organization (WTO). These would further impede and delay the competition from generic drugs that is key to pushing down prices and therefore making medicines available to many more people. In addition, new, harsher provisions on enforcement of private IP rights would be available to big pharma to try to undermine competition – including injunctions, higher damages for patent infringement, and various border measures that could interfere with transit of legitimate generic medicines based on mere suspicion of infringing intellectual property rights claimed by big pharma.
  • So-called “transparency” provisions would create more opportunities for drug companies to challenge governments’ decisions about reimbursing medicines under public health insurance programs, while also allowing more direct marketing to consumers by drug companies.
  • Finally, the TPP would expand so-called “investor-state dispute settlement” rules to cover IP rights. This would allow drug companies to sue governments if they interfere with companies “expectations of profit” through public interest laws or regulations on things such as patents, the use of data submitted in getting marketing approval for drugs, and setting prices of pharmaceuticals, including the prices at which drugs are covered under public health insurance plans.

Time for action

But there’s still time to head off this disaster for public health and human rights.

The TPP has to be ratified and implemented by the 12 negotiating countries before it takes effect.This makes it all the more critical that governments hear from the public, whose rights, health and lives will be affected by the TPP’s provisions.

This includes the new government in Ottawa. While PM Trudeau and the Liberal Party have stated support for the TPP in principle during the election, the party also declared that “it must keep its word and defend Canadian interests during these negotiations.”

Those interests clearly include access to affordable medicines. Canadians already pay some of the highest drug prices in the world and spending on pharmaceutical products is one of the three largest elements of our overall health care spending, year after year. No wonder, then, that Canadians have repeatedly expressed their opposition to longer patents for drug companies.

“Canadian interests” also include a commitment to ending the tragic global gap in access to medicines, particularly burdensome for developing countries facing multiple major public health challenges – including, but not limited to, HIV. This commitment was reflected in the widespread support — including from 80% of Canadians polled — for fixing the flaws in Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR). Such fixes were, and are, needed so that the regime could deliver on Parliament’s previous unanimous pledge (a decade ago!) to support developing countries in getting more affordable, generic medicines.

Sadly, a bill to fix CAMR was narrowly defeated by the previous government in the last Parliament — and while the new government has not yet specifically committed to supporting those reforms again in the new Parliament (as it did previously), it did declare during the election that “there is no question that we need to get more low-cost medicines and other essential medical supplies and equipment to people in developing countries.”

Canada’s new government should not only fix the existing flawed CAMR, but also reject the TPP in its current form. The agreement’s provisions stand in direct contradiction to the goals of improving access to medicines, for Canadians and for people in developing countries. Canada should:

  • commit to a full public consultation on the TPP, including an independent assessment of its impact on human rights (including access to medicines), among other concerns;
  • refuse to ratify the TPP as long as it contains any “TRIPS-plus” provisions that exceed the already-restrictive rules on intellectual property that have been adopted at the WTO; and
  • reject any deal that extends the discredited, damaging “investor-state dispute settlement” system to cover intellectual property or other laws and regulations affecting pharmaceuticals, as this would enable pharmaceutical companies to impede regulation of this sector in the public interest.

What action can you take?