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Civil society groups ask UK govt to drop demands for stricter IP provisions as part of trade deal with India

Our Bureau, Mumbai
Saturday, September 2, 2023, 08:00 Hrs  [IST]

A large number of civil society organisations, health providers, and medical professionals from low and middle-income countries have urged the British government to change the course of negotiation between India and the United Kingdom for a free trade agreement, and drop the UK’s demands for stricter intellectual property provisions as part of any trade deal with India. The civil society organisations also asked the UK government to pledge that it will never propose such changes in any trade negotiations with low and middle-income countries that could increase the costs of medicines globally.

“Pharmaceutical companies often deny our patients timely, affordable access to the medicines they desperately need. In this context, cheaper, generic medicines provide us with a lifeline. We write to you to warn that your government could be about to cut this lifeline short”, the civil society groups said in a letter to the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, UK.

The United Kingdom is negotiating a free trade agreement with India, a global epicentre of generics production. India’s generics industry is underpinned by a legal system which seeks to balance intellectual property rights with the right to health.

However, a leaked government paper has revealed that the UK wants to introduce sweeping changes to these laws as part of any agreement. The UK proposals mention that India would be required to extend patent monopolies beyond the 20 years agreed under the TRIPS Agreement, by several years. This would lead to further delays in introducing price-lowering generic competition, the letter said.  

On data exclusivity, the UK’s proposal asks India to introduce new rules that delay the registration of generic versions of medicines for six years, even when there is no patent on that medicine or even if the generic product meets the quality standards prescribed by the national drug regulatory authority.

Besides, the UK proposal asks India to introduce and allow patenting on trivial changes of known medicines, which can lead to longer monopolies and delay generic entry. On removing pre-grant patent oppositions, the UK proposal asks India to remove a “pre-grant opposition” mechanism, a democratic procedure in Indian law that allows anybody to submit evidence opposing or challenging the validity of a patent application at any time before the patent office makes a decision. These measures could threaten the supply of generic medicines to low and middle-income countries. Patients may have to wait years longer before they can access certain medicines, and countless lives could be lost as a result.

For example, this year, the Indian Patent Office rejected a controversial attempt by Johnson & Johnson to extend the patent on its tuberculosis drug bedaquiline. This case opened the door for other companies to produce affordable generic versions of bedaquiline, with some health experts estimating the cost of treatment could be cut by up to 80%. Depriving people of affordable medicines would increase health inequality, as only the wealthiest in our countries may be able to afford these medicines, the civil society groups said in the letter.

Moreover, it would add further financial burden on our already stretched health systems. We urge you to think of the wider context of your relations with the Global South. The UK has slashed Overseas Development Assistance funding which, by your government’s own estimations, will lead to thousands of deaths.

During the Covid-19 pandemic the British Government repeatedly worked to block a widely supported proposal at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which would have helped low and middle-income countries produce generic vaccines, tests, and treatments. Attacking India’s generics industry would be yet another act of global health vandalism, which could leave the UK’s international reputation in tatters and undermine the UK’s international development strategies. As trade negotiations reach their final stages, we hope that you will consider the harm these proposals could inflict on both patients and health systems in the Global South. As UK health workers and campaigners have warned, the measures you are pushing for could even harm the UK’s NHS, the letter further said.


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