Reaction from Public Health, AIDS organizations to Democratic Leadership-Bush Administration Announcement on Trade Policy

For Immediate Release
Monday, May 14, 2007

Contact for more information:
Asia Russell/Health GAP: +1 267 475 2645
Robert Weissman/Essential Action: +1 202 360 1844
Matt Kavanaugh/Student Global AIDS Campaign: +1 202 486 2488

On Friday May 11, the House Democratic leadership and the Bush Administration announced an agreement on trade issues, including patent and access-to-medicines-related provisions of trade agreements with Peru and Panama.

We remain concerned that while some first steps have been taken to lessen the harm of U.S. trade agreements, it is still the case that, if passed by Congress, these trade agreements with Peru and Panama will restrict rather than expand access to lifesaving medicines.

The first thing that must be said about the agreement is: nothing definitive can be said until more details emerge, and final textual amendments are presented. In the case of trade agreements, details and specificity are of crucial importance.

A better process would have involved a transparent discussion of key issues, and an opportunity for more structured input and comment on unfolding details from Members of Congress and the public. That better process could only have yielded a better outcome.

On the substance, it appears the Democratic leadership has taken some first steps to make U.S. trade agreements less harmful to public health. It is not true, as some news accounts have suggested, that the May 11 deal will limit brand-name drug companies' patent and related monopolies. In a best-case scenario, what the deal will do is limit the extent to which U.S. trade agreements expand brand-name drug companies' monopolies.

However, arguing about how to make trade deals "less harmful" is the wrong framework. When it comes to public health, the United States should aspire to a higher standard: first, and at minimum, to do no harm; and second, to use international agreements to address access-to-medicines, efficient innovation of medical technologies and other pressing global public health priorities. Trade agreements modified in accord with the May 11 announcement will fail to meet that test.

More will be required in order to meet previously guaranteed rights that countries can prioritize public health and take measures to guarantee access to medicines for all. The Democratic leadership was not able to eliminate all of the life-threatening provisions in U.S. trade agreements, which themselves build on a World Trade Organization framework that is already heavily biased to favor Big Pharma.

For example, the preservation of data exclusivity alone is a gigantic gift to Big Pharma. Data exclusivity -- rules preventing generics from relying on clinical test data from brand-name companies -- is Big Pharma's top agenda item for trade deals, and a major impediment to generic competition. In addition, the reported time limits and exceptions to data exclusivity announced on May 11 may be narrower than initially reported.

Moreover, it is very dangerous to give any additional latitude to an administration that has shown itself to operate in bad faith on access-to-medicines issues. Just last month, USTR placed Thailand on the "priority watch" list for lawfully issuing compulsory licenses. Formal rights preserved in free trade agreements are of limited value if USTR is going to apply informal pressure, use the Special 301 process, and coerce countries during trade agreement implementation phases -- all to undermine access-to-medicines initiatives.

Developing countries should be free from agreements and USTR pressures that restrict their rights to use all available flexibilities for accessing more affordable generic medicines to meet their public health needs. Members of Congress should insist on a new approach to access to medicines issues with trading partners, rather than accepting a partial package of reforms.

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