US trade policy putting public health at risk

Published: 4th March 2013

Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement to exacerbate Vietnam’s access to medicines crisis

The United States is again pursuing an important free trade agreement that will lock in high drug prices out of poor people’s reach – this time across the Asia-Pacific region, warns international agency Oxfam.

Talks resume in Singapore this week for the ‘Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement’ (TPPA). The US is again insisting that countries must take on strict intellectual property protection and drug pricing rules when they sign the deal.

Oxfam believes this will harm their ability to effectively negotiate prices with the world’s big drug companies. For a county like Vietnam that already struggles to keep up with high medicine prices, the TPPA could be devastating.

Dire consequences for millions of people

Oxfam spokesperson Rohit Malpani said: “The US proposals will have dire health consequences across Asia and Latin America. Millions of people are already struggling to find affordable medicines. These rules could price medicines out of reach for future generations too.”

In the past ten years, the US has consistently demanded in these trade negotiations that poor countries should introduce measures that will increase medicine prices.

In particular, the US wants rules that either interfere with basic, WTO-sanctioned safeguards that allow a country to override patent monopolies in order to protect public health, or rules that extend the monopoly for a medicine beyond twenty years, and so delay cheaper generic competition from entering the market.

Malpani said: “The US is putting the interests of the drug industry above those of public health. It needs to reconsider this approach because it undermines the sustainability of public health-care programs and discredits trade itself as a tool for poverty reduction.”

Vientamese already struggling to pay for health care

In Vietnam, government officials, experts and civil society groups are already worried about the possible impact of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement on medicine prices. Patients in Vietnam already pay 72% of their medicine costs.

Thousands more people could be pushed into poverty there. They will have to choose between medicines and other basic necessities, or forego treatment altogether. Many drugs for diseases including HIV and AIDS, cancer and hepatitis B and C are already too expensive for most people there. 

The TPPA also comes at a bad time for efforts to provide universal treatment to HIV and AIDS. Up to 170,000 people still require basic treatment in Vietnam and thousands more will soon need new, patented anti-retroviral medicines as they will develop resistance to their current treatments. The US proposals will increase these medicine costs too.

To make matters worse, the US – which currently finances more than half of the country’s HIV and AIDS treatment budget – may pull this funding in 2015. 

Malpani said: “At a time at which both the government and patients in Vietnam are struggling to pay for medicines, a trade agreement that will make medicines more expensive is unacceptable. The US should be investing in programs that will foster a sustainable health system in Vietnam, not driving thousands of patients into poverty and poor health.”

The US is putting the interests of the drug industry above those of public health.
Rohit Malpani
Oxfam Policy Advisor on Access to Medicines

Notes to editors

Contact information

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