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As the next round of Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement negotiations get underway this week [28 June - 1 July], international agency Oxfam has called on the negotiating parties to ensure the Agreement does not erect new barriers that prevent generic medicines from reaching poor countries.
Trade ministers from the countries negotiating ACTA will meet in Lucerne, Switzerland to discuss controversial rules that would strengthen and expand monopolies of multinational drug companies in developing countries. In its current form, the Agreement will inhibit generic competition and will have a devastating impact on access to medicines in developing countries.
The Agreement as it stands empowers multinational drug companies to ask customs officers in exporting, transit and importing countries to seize legitimate and safe generic medicines on the false grounds that they are counterfeit goods. The EU, in particular, is insisting that customs officials should be able to seize medicines for patent infringement - even through the patent status of a medicine bears no relationship to whether it is counterfeit.
"Negotiating countries are cynically using legitimate fears of counterfeit medicines to exert greater control over the trade in generic medicines to poor countries," said Oxfam spokesperson Rohit Malpani. "ACTA is proposing a new, expanded framework of intellectual property protections on behalf of multinational drug companies which will be combined with border measures to stifle the trade in legitimate generic medicines. This will mean that poor people will be denied legitimate and life-saving generic medicines."
The EU is in fact already enforcing a regulation that requires customs officials to seize legitimate generic medicines on the basis that they infringe patents (and trademarks) within the EU. At least twenty legal consignments of generic medicines from India and China destined for developing countries - including a shipment of AIDS medicines from India headed to Nigeria, that were legitimately traded under WTO rules - were seized at European transit points last year. The EU Regulation has now been challenged by India and Brazil at the World Trade Organization as inconsistent with global trade rules.
Malpani said: "The ACTA Agreement is a serious step backwards. Instead of promoting greater flexibility with intellectual property to encourage greater access to inventions and more innovation, developed countries have engaged in a secretive negotiation that amounts to a ‘resource grab' on behalf of multinational companies."
"A trade agenda that limits the legitimate movement of cheap generic medicines will hit the poorest people in developing countries disproportionately hard. The interests of big drug companies can not be put ahead of the needs of two billion people around the world who do not have access to essential medicines."
"What is needed now is an agreement focused on strategies to reduce counterfeits for the sake of public health and safety. ACTA negotiating countries are pursuing a range of measures that have nothing to do with the illegal trade in counterfeit medicines. Countries must stop pursuing sweeping changes to intellectual property laws that will undermine the public interest and the health of people in poor countries."
Notes to editors
- Countries negotiating ACTA are: Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States.
- Negotiating parties are also seeking to introduce other rules that would harm trade in legitimate generic medicines. One key concern is that the Agreement would create new and unnecessary legal liability for suppliers of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), which are the basic building blocks of medicines. If these rules remain, the supply of APIs may dry up, threatening the trade in many generic medicines needed by the world's poorest countries.
- The Agreement would also introduce a new Secretariat, unaccountable to developing countries and civil society - that would seek to impose these onerous intellectual property rules upon the world's poorest countries. It would come at a time when other intellectual property institutions, including the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization, are increasingly responsive to the needs of developing countries.
Caroline Hooper-Box, email@example.com or +1 202 321 2967