Blog post

Can you trade away health?

2 min read
13 Feb 2014


The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), a trade deal under negotiation now, aims to enforce strong intellectual property laws in 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific region which may seriously affect health provision. The suggested laws will make access to generics harder and increase the price of treatment for those who can't afford it. This sets a negative precedent in negotiation and may cause a lot of damage to aid programmes, which often rely on affordable drugs to reach out to as many people as possible.

Amongst the measures of the TPP, the following might be particularly harmful:

  • The TPP lowers the bar for patentability. This means that pharmaceutical companies will be able to extend monopoly protection by obtaining patents for modifications of existing drugs, delaying access to generic drugs.
  • The TPP prohibits pre-grant oppositions. Patents cannot be challenged until they have been granted. This delays access to medicines and makes it harder to challenge patents.
  • The TPP imposes data exclusivity. Regulators can't use existing clinical data to give market approval to generic drugs. This allows pharmaceutical companies to keep prices high for longer.

All of this is expected to have a particularly dramatic effect in Vietnam, where 0.5% of the population is infected with HIV, Tuberculosis is on the rise, and malaria is prevalent. The country has relied on foreign aid and needs appropriate access to cheap medicines to provide treatment for these diseases. The TPP might jeopardize the chances of success of international aid programmes to the country, by making it much more expensive to provide healthcare. This is a pretty big problem in a country where 12% of the population still lives below the poverty line.

PhARMA - which represents large companies such as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline - has been lobbying the US government to make sure that the TPP goes ahead. It argues that intellectual property protections are not a problem compared to scarcity of hospitals and doctors. It also claims that strong patent protection offers an incentive for investments in areas that may benefit developing countries, such as drug delivery system suitable for high temperatures and humidity, and that it protects against the distribution of counterfeit products, which is a large problem in some areas.

The next round of negotiations on the 12-nation trade agreement backed by the US, is expected to take place next week in Singapore.