Sunday, October 15, 2006

FTAs - A Threat to Public Health

Representative Henry Waxman and Senator Edward Kennedy have requested the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the impact of trade negotiations and policy on public health and access to medicines in developing countries.

In a press release, the request for an investigation of the Administration's trade negotiations is called for in the context of the "negative effects on developing countries' access to medicines." Referring to the Trade Act of 2002 (US Trade Promotion Authority Act), which obliges the government to respect and promote public health in all countries as part of US trade practices and policy. The Trade Act of 2002 grants the US President authority to negotiate bilateral trade deals with other countries, the approval of which is streamlined (fast track authority) with Congress unable to amend such agreements, merely to approve or reject. Such fast track authority was used in Uruguay Round of negotiations leading to the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Renewed in 2002, the fast track authority will expire in July next year unless extended by Congress.

The letter to the Comptroller General of the GAO refers to the three objectives dealing with intellectual property in the Trade Act of 2002 - IP protection, market access, and public health - and argues that, taken together, these outline the "clear vision for trade negotiations related to intellectual property." Further, "we would like to learn to what extent the third objective, to respect the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health, has been pursued."

The letter to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, US Department of Health and Human Services, refers specifically to a letter from William R Steiger (pictured at right), HHS Special Assistance for International Affairs, sent to the Acting Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) insisting upon the withdrawal of the study, "The Use of Flexibilities in TRIPS by Developing Countries: Can They Promote Access to Medicines?" The study, prepared by Sisule Musungu of South Centre and Cecilia Oh of the WHO, criticises the impact of US trade policy on international public health and access to medicines.

The action by the two politicians comes at the same time that the Thai Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (International HIV/AIDS Alliance Thailand) is campaigning against the Thai-US free trade agreement (FTA) in the US. The campaign was launched earlier this month and will continue until 29 October throughout major US cities. In a recent report in the Bangkok newspaper, "The Nation," Nimit Tienudom, Director of the AIDS Access Foundation described the campaign as informing US citizens about the impact of US trade policy on access to HIV/AIDS treatments. In an earlier article in the same newspaper, Tienudom criticised the Thai-US FTA: "Under the current law and trade agreements we have, there still are ways out such as the compulsory licensing measures ... If we accept the FTA, all doors will be shut."

These are concerns not only in agreements with developing countries, but also in those with countries like Australia. The Australia-US FTA (AUSFTA) has been criticised widely, particularly in the US objection to Australian health policy as a barrier to trade. The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) is the specific focus of that objection (and is the subject matter of a side letter to the AUSFTA). As a result, public health and medicines were major aspects of the negotiations and of the campaigns both for and against the AUSFTA. Significantly, the imposition of the US economic model in this area of domestic policy was seen seriously undermining government capacity and democratic principles in Australia. Annex 2-C (Pharmaceuticals) to Chapter 2 (National Treatment and Market Access for Goods) establishes a joint Medicines Working Group, which many commentators have criticised as introducing US-style pricing for medicines and undermining public health policies of affordable medicines. Further, Article 17.10 (Measures Related to Certain Regulated Products) and mandating of 5 years data exclusivity may delay access to affordable generic versions of brand-name drugs.

FTAs have also been criticised for rendering traditional and indigenous knowledge increasingly vulnerable to appropriation through the intellectual property protection of the bioprospecting activities of pharmaceutical companies. In particular, the DR-CAFTA has been described in the Latinamerica Press as paving the way for biopiracy, having "opened the door to foreign ownership of the right to exploit the region's abundant and diverse tropical flora."

The international network,, has just published its very useful background paper, "Overview of Bilateral Free Trade and Investment Agreements." The paper was prepared for the FTA Watch "Fighting FTAs" international strategy workship, held in Bangkok in July this year.

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