Thousands of HIV positive people march in Delhi

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Delhi once again on 2 March in protest over the planned Free Trade Agreement between India and the European Union (EU). Photo: Mudit Mathur

New Delhi – The international medical humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF) marched alongside more than two thousand people living with HIV from across Asia and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health in New Delhi today, urging the Indian government to stand strong amid pressure from the European Union to accept provisions in a free trade agreement (FTA) that would restrict access to affordable medicines. Sensitive negotiations are taking place in Brussels today.

“More than 80% of the AIDS drugs our medical practitioners use to treat 175,000 people in developing countries are affordable generics from India,” said Paul Cawthorne, of MSF’s Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. “Beyond AIDS, we rely on producers in India for drugs to treat other illnesses, such as tuberculosis and malaria.  We can not afford to let our patients’ lifeline be cut.”

The EU is pushing for intellectual property provisions in the FTA that exceed what international trade rules require. The most damaging measure is so-called ‘data exclusivity,’ which would act like a patent and block more affordable generic medicines from the market, even for drugs that are already off patent, or do not merit a patent to begin with. The EU continues to claim – falsely – that these provisions will not harm access to medicines.

“Data exclusivity has proven to be damaging to public health in free trade agreements in other countries,” said Anand Grover, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health.  “It would be a colossal mistake to introduce data exclusivity in India, when millions of people across the globe depend on the country as the ‘pharmacy of the developing world’.”

Affordable medicines produced in India have played a major role, for example, in scaling up HIV/AIDS treatment to more than five million people in developing countries.  India was able to produce more affordable versions of medicines patented elsewhere because it did not grant patents on medicines until 2005, when World Trade Organisation rules required it to do so.  But when India designed its patent law, it prioritised public health, limiting patents to drugs that are new, not just routine improvements of older medicines.

“India’s law has long annoyed multinational pharmaceutical companies, and Novartis and Bayer have even tried to overturn the law in the Indian courts,” said Loon Gangte, of the Delhi Network of Positive People.  “They have failed so far, but companies have now convinced European governments to take up their fight for pharmaceutical profits.”

The fact that India does now grant medicines patents is already having a chilling effect for people living with HIV – who need to switch to newer medicines when drug resistance develops over time – and for people with hepatitis-C and cancer.  Several newer medicines to treat these diseases have already been patented in India which will prevent the production of more affordable generics. 

“We have not been able to get generic versions of treatment for hepatitis-C that affects most drug users and many people living with HIV because the medicine is patented in India,” said Abou Mere of the Asian Network of People Who Use Drugs.  “And I don’t know any one of us who can afford the over US$15,000 it costs in India for the full treatment.”

The intellectual property provisions the EU is pushing would make this difficult situation significantly worse, by imposing even more restrictions on the production of affordable generic medicines in the future.  Other intellectual property measures in the FTA, such as the investment chapter, can also be used by corporations to attack governments’ rights to take public health measures.

“We all rely on affordable medicines made here in India to stay alive,” said Nepal-based Rajiv Kafle of the Asia Pacific Network of Positive People.  “We don’t want to go back in time, to when our friends and loved ones died because they couldn’t afford the medicines they needed.  We’ve come to Delhi to send a very simple message to the Indian government: Don’t trade away our lives in the EU-India FTA.”

Find out more about MSF in India