Global Policy Forum

"Europe! Hands off Our Medecine" Says MSF

November 2010

Millions of people in developing countries rely on affordable generic medicines produced in countries like India to stay alive. But the European Commission is pushing aggressive policies that will severely restrict these life-saving medicines.

"We depend on access to affordable generic medicines like those produced in India to treat all kinds of diseases. We buy 80% of our AIDS medicines from India - medicines that keep 160,000 people alive today," said Dr. Unni Karunakara, President of MSF's International Council.  "On their behalf, we cannot remain silent as Europe works to close the door on every aspect of drug supply - the production of a generic medicine, its registration, and its transportation."

The attack is taking a number of different forms, including free trade agreements, international treaties, customs regulations. If Europe succeeds, millions of people across the developing world could see their source of affordable medicines dry up, as generic companies will no longer have the space to produce or sell them.

Europe! Hands Off Our Medicine is Médecins Sans Frontières' campaign to push Europe to back down. MSF is asking people to sign and send a letter to EC Commissioner, Karel De Gucht, to take steps to stop the restriction of these life-saving medicines.

"What the Europeans are doing is effectively snatching the medicines out of our hands," said Dr. Marius Müller, MSF's Medical Coordinator in Kenya. "Because generic medicines are more affordable, we have been able to put more and more patients on AIDS medicines. This has meant a lot of hope for our patients who can work again, who can bring up their children again. But if Europe has its way and shuts off this source, we risk killing the success of what has been achieved here in the last five years."

India: The 'pharmacy of the developing world'

When a drug company holds a patent on a medicine, it can prevent other companies from producing or selling the drug in a country for the duration of the patent's term. This allows the company to charge high prices in countries where it holds patents because there are no competitors in the market, and drugs remain unaffordable.

Until recently, India did not grant patents on medicines, so local companies could produce drugs identical in quality to the original product, but at heavily reduced prices.  As a result, these generic drugs manufactured in India are among the most affordable in the world.

More than 80% of the medicines MSF uses to treat its more than 160,000 patients on AIDS treatment come from generic producers in India.  The proportion of AIDS medicines produced by Indian manufacturers is up to 90% in certain important medical needs such as medicines to treat HIV in children.

Accessing affordable medicines from India is a lifeline for all developing countries - but this situation is now under attack, and the European Commission is playing a leading role.

European Commission is playing a leading role in these attacks

As a World Trade Organization member, India has to comply with the trade rules set by the WTO.  These rules include minimal levels of intellectual property (IP) protection such as patents and trademarks. The central agreement is the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property, or TRIPS, which obliges WTO countries to grant patents on technological products, including pharmaceuticals. To comply with TRIPS, India changed its patent law in 2005 and started to grant patents on medicines. If patents are granted in the country, Indian generic manufacturers will not be able to produce cheaper generic versions of these medicines. This will have an impact not only in India, but also on other countries that rely on importing generic medicines from India in order to treat their populations.

Access to medicines will therefore increasingly depend on the use of what are known as 'TRIPS flexibilities' - legal measures enshrined in countries' laws to promote access to more affordable medicines. The European Commission is rallying against these kinds of flexibilities through customs regulations that block trade in generic drugs, bilateral free trade agreements, international anti-counterfeiting trade agreement or ACTA.

In pursuing these trade policies, the EC is acting in violation of its previous commitments.  In 2001, all WTO countries - including European Union member states - signed the Doha Declaration, which states "that the [TRIPS] Agreement can and should be interpreted and implemented in a manner supportive of WTO Members' right to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all."  This Declaration allows countries to take measures to protect public health.  The EC repeatedly says it's acting in accordance with the Doha Declaration - but at the same time pursues aggressive policies that threaten to shut down access to affordable medicines across the world.

Lives at stake

Millions of people in developing countries rely on affordable generic medicines to stay alive. More than 80% of the medicines used by MSF to treat AIDS across the developing world are produced in India. But the European Commission is now shutting off the tap of affordable medicines by attacking the production, registration, transportation and exportation of generic medicines. People who need these will be left without a lifeline.

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