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POV: United States Proposing to Cut Medicine for World’s Poor

Trade treaty favors drug companies, not patients

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The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a controversial trade “partnership” between the United States, Canada, and Mexico that severely reduced Mexican tariffs on foreign crops, rendering small-scale and local Mexican farmers unable to compete even within their own hometowns. Our government is currently proposing a newer, larger version of NAFTA, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Negotiations have been ongoing since 2010 among 12 countries that include some of the world’s richest nations, such as the United States, Australia, and Japan, and some of the poorest, like Vietnam, where over half of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and Peru, where 35 percent of the population lives in poverty.

As part of the agreement, the United States is seeking some extreme conditions that threaten access to medicine in developing countries. It hopes to expand the ability of pharmaceutical corporations to lengthen existing patents, as well as obtain new patents for existing medications after making only minor alterations to dosages or chemical formulas, even in the absence of improved efficacy. Furthermore, US negotiators hope to allow corporations to patent plants, animals, and surgical techniques, even making it impossible to oppose a patent application until the patent is actually granted.

They also hope to give pharmaceutical companies the right to sue governments whose regulations negatively affect expected profits. These American demands are a reversal of positions supported in many previous trade agreements. They also, according to Doctors Without Borders, “threaten the sustainability of the very global health programs [the United States] supports, including the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, which rely heavily on availability and affordability of generic medicines.” Doctors Without Borders recently sent President Obama an open letter expressing “serious concern” about the treaty, which is poised to wreak havoc on the health of millions worldwide. It notes that the dramatic reduction in the cost of antiretroviral drug treatment (a 99 percent decrease in a few years, to under $140 per capita) was essential for the poorest countries to fight HIV/AIDS. This decrease was due to the competition created by generic drug companies—competition that would be restricted under the current iteration of the TPP.

If you haven’t heard of TPP, you’re not alone; the negotiation process has, by design, kept the public in the dark. Sessions have taken place in near-complete confidentiality, in direct conflict with the Obama administration’s increasingly meaningless aspiration to be the “most transparent administration ever.” WikiLeaks only recently released the section of the agreement addressing intellectual property rights, leading critics to characterize TPP as “NAFTA on steroids” and note how it would affect “patent and copyright law, land use, food and product standards, natural resources, professional licensing, government procurement, financial practices, health care, energy, telecommunications, and other service sector regulations.” Intellectual property expert Matthew Rimmer has called TPP “a Christmas wish list for major corporations,” adding that “Hollywood, the music industry, big IT companies such as Microsoft, and the pharmaceutical sector would all be very happy with this.”

The Obama administration is also seeking to tie the conclusion of the talks to the renewal of “fast track” Trade Promotion Authority. In this arrangement, Congress, the body that actually has the constitutional responsibility to authorize free trade agreements, would be required to vote on the proposed agreement with minimal debate and no amendments.

Several US politicians have been vocal critics of the process, including our own Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.) has worked to force the administration to allow access to the details of the TPP, arguing that “Congress is being kept in the dark as to the substance of the TPP negotiations, while representatives of US corporations–like Halliburton, Chevron, PHRMA, Comcast, and the MPAA—are being consulted and made privy to details of the agreement…More than two months after receiving the proper security credentials, my staff is still barred from viewing the details of the proposals.”

As students at the School of Medicine, we demand that President Obama and other global leaders reject the TPP. There is a strong precedent for advocacy that has been able to stop behind-closed-doors agreements supporting the one percent of our world. President Bush proposed the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2003 as an extension of NAFTA; it failed to pass the last negotiation stages. The Stop Online Piracy Act that was poised to eliminate internet sharing freedoms by strengthening copyright laws was also defeated, due in large part to public outcry in 2012.

Collective voices matter, and we ask you to step forward and join us in spreading the word about TPP and its potentially devastating effects on global health, medicine access, and individual freedoms. Use any medium and action you can to show that we stand in solidarity with human rights globally. Let’s make sure everyone knows that enough is enough.

Megan Weinand (MED’17) can be reached at meganweinand@gmail.com. Bobby Carey (MED’17) can be reached at carey.bobby@gmail.com. Celeste Peay (MED’17) can be reached at cpeay@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

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