Charities lobby EU over access to generic drugs

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 13 February 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1066
  1. Anne Gulland
  1. 1London

Campaigners are waiting to find out whether talks on free trade between India and the European Union will spell an end to the supply of cheap generic drugs to poor countries.

Charities such as Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières have highlighted the issue on the eve of high level talks between the EU’s president, José Manuel Barroso, and India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, in New Delhi on 10 February.

The talks ended without any firm agreement but had, said Mr Barroso, moved a “significant step forward” and should be finalised this autumn. Charities are worried that as part of the trade-offs made in any bilateral talks the Indian government will agree to enforcing European intellectual property rights, meaning that the price of drugs manufactured in India would rise significantly.

India is known as the “pharmacy of the developing world” because two thirds of all generic drugs used in developing countries and 80% of all drugs used to treat HIV and AIDS are made there.

India has consistently refused to bow to pressure from the EU to tighten intellectual property law, but campaigners are concerned that the government will give this up as part of a broader trade deal.

Oxfam’s policy adviser Rohit Malpani said that pressure needed to be applied to the Indian government and the EU to ensure that the issue remained in the spotlight.

“What we have seen in a lot of trade agreements is that the EU often prioritises stricter enforcement of intellectual property because it’s to their advantage,” he said.

He added that India had seen big improvements to healthcare provision, with many states now providing free drugs. Any tightening of intellectual property laws would make further such improvements impossible, he said.

“If the Indian government makes a decision [on intellectual property] it would have an enormous impact on Indian households,” he said.

Piero Gandini, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières in India, said, “What the EU is trying to do with this trade agreement is effectively slowly poison the production of affordable generic medicines in India, which has helped keep so many people alive. This trade agreement could target us as treatment providers, simply for buying generic medicines from India to treat patients in our programmes.”

The singer and AIDS campaigner Elton John called on the EU to ensure that India was able to continue to produce generic drugs.

He said: “This is an attack on the health of the world’s poor, motivated by the aggressive demands of profit hungry multinational pharmaceutical companies. Millions of people with HIV rely on generic manufacturers in India for their lifesaving medicines. We cannot allow Europe’s greed to triumph over the needs of HIV patients around the world.”

A spokeswoman for Karel de Gucht, the European trade commissioner, said, “Nothing in the proposed agreement should limit the capacity of India or the EU to promote access to medicines and protect public health.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1066