Access to affordable & life-saving medicine under threat with TPPA?

I met her a few years back.

She was frail, gaunt and in deep pain most of the time. And yet, what caught my eye was her joy for life despite fighting cancer, which was eating into her bones and other vital organs.

She died recently. But generic medicine gave her the extra years of life, which she cherished. It gave her the much-needed time with her loved ones and others, including myself.

But all that will change when Malaysia signs the Trans-pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It would deny people years of their lives, especially families that cannot afford patented medicine.

And peoples’ fundamental right to health will also be compromised as the agreement will deny them access to affordable life-saving and life-prolonging medicines.

Specifically, the attempt to restrict production of generic drugs will have a devastating impact on public health.

No one knows for certain the exact provisions in the TPPA, as negotiations are kept confidential. In fact, the text would only be made public four years after the agreement is signed.

But a leaked document revealed that there are indeed strict requirements on Intellectual Property Rights (known as TRIPS-PLUS) which go beyond the requirements of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

These requirements would increase the prices of medicines as they restrict the production of generic medicines by:

  • Broadening the scope of patentability to include minor modifications to existing formulas;

  • Expanding data exclusivity which restricts access to clinical trial data hence delaying or preventing generic competition;

  • Restricting the use of important public-health safeguards, including parallel importation (where the same patented medicine could be imported if it is cheaper elsewhere) and compulsory licensing.

A study on the effect of US-Jordan free-trade agreements (FTA) has shown that medicine prices in Jordan have increased 20 per cent, without any corresponding benefit in foreign direct investment (FDI) or research and development (R&D).

Essentially, the TPPA is tailored to help big pharmaceutical firms to continue making profits that run into billions of dollars by out-beating and wiping out competition from generic drugs manufacturers.

The same can very well happen in Malaysia.

Majority of the medicines used in Malaysia are generic medicines, and findings suggest that consumers can save up to 90 per cent of the cost of their medication by using generic products.

In fact Malaysia became the first Asian country to issue a compulsory license to import antiretroviral medicines (ARVs) for HIV/AIDS treatment from India, in 2003. This was following its failure to get sufficient price reductions from two patent-holding pharmaceutical companies.

If the TPPA is signed, the use of parallel importation and compulsory licensing could be restricted, weakening safeguards for public health.

The evidences are many, but they all point to the same conclusion that the TPPA would restrict access to affordable medicines and the right to life of Malaysians. Prices of medicines ranging from those used to treat diabetes, hypertension, breast cancer, HIV and many others would be severely affected.

We need to act now as there are indications that the TPPA agreement would be signed by October this year.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights noted that State parties must respect the enjoyment of the right to health, and take steps to ensure that international agreements do not infringe or adversely impact upon this right.

The Malaysian government must take heed of this.

I call upon Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government to emulate countries such as Australia and New Zealand, which have publically indicated that they would not sign on to any international trade agreements that would compromise the right to health or access to essential medicines.

Charles Santiago MP for Klang