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International health activists criticise President Obama’s attempts to undermine India's IPR

Ramesh Shankar, Mumbai
Thursday, January 29, 2015, 08:00 Hrs  [IST]

US President Barack Obama’s comments during the India-US CEO Forum in New Delhi on Monday January 26 with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have drawn harsh criticism from international health activists.  The activists have called upon Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stand strong against US pressure to change its pro-public health patent laws.

The activists warned that following President Obama’s advice, American-style IPR policies could severely damage the Indian economy and health system, while restricting access to affordable medicines for patients around the world.

“Indian generics have been essential to expanding access to medicine around the world,” said Asia Russell, Health GAP’s Executive Director. “I am based in Uganda, where expanded access to Indian generics has had a transformative impact on the HIV epidemic. Around the world, we’ll rely on Indian generics again for unrestricted access in all low and middle income countries to treatment of diseases such as hepatitis C, given that Indian firms can make generic versions of new treatments 1,000 times cheaper than what multinational pharmaceutical companies charge in first world markets.”

Threatened by free trade of high-quality and affordable medicines, US-based pharmaceutical companies and politicians friendly with the industry are using prominently placed op-eds, large advertisements on Washington, D.C. buses, and letters to President Obama to spread false information—claiming India’s rules are not legal or discourage innovation. The companies have been threatening to withhold investment if India does not adopt weaker patent laws that would extend pharmaceutical monopolies and stymie the country’s generic industry.

The bullying has been far-reaching. The US Trade Representative listed India on its “priority watch list” in the 2014 Special 301 Watch List, which is annually published to shame countries with intellectual property legislation that is not to American businesses and politicians’ liking. As a result, India may face US trade sanctions. Members of Congress also demanded an investigation into what they call India's "IP protectionism." This is despite India’s intellectual property laws being fully in line with international standards, as outlined in World Trade Organization agreements. The USTR also undertook an out-of-cycle review of India’s IP policy, and two separate investigations of India’s trade and investment policies have been undertaken at the US International Trade Commission because of Pharma complaints to Congress.

“India fully complies with international law while also making it possible for billions of people in India and around the world to access life-saving affordable drugs,” said Matthew Kavanagh, Health GAP’s senior policy analyst. “Giving US pharmaceutical companies longer monopolies would help their bottom line—but at the cost of the Indian economy and the lives of millions of people.” US pharmaceutical companies are also pressuring India to adopt data exclusivity rules, which in the US make clinical trial data submitted to public regulators into another right, creating a monopoly barrier to generic registration and competition even where there is no patent.

India’s pharmaceutical industry has been able to flourish because of the country’s pro-public health patent laws, in which patents are only granted on new medicines or for significant changes on old medicines. The US, in contrast, regularly gives out patents on slightly tweaked versions of old medicines that do not provide enhanced therapeutic benefit, extending monopoly protection and keeping prices high.

“Rather than shaming India, the US should learn from the country’s use of intellectual property policy to promote true innovation and equitable access to medicine,” Baker said.

Already the Indian government has shown signs that it may bend to the unrelenting pressure from the US government Last year, the country's Minister of Commerce and Industry, Nirmala Sitharaman, initiated work on a “new” IP policy and has now asked the US government for comments on a draft version of this policy.

“Health activists around the world are in solidarity with Prime Minister Modi,” Kavanagh said. “We’re calling on the Indian government not to bend to U.S. pressure. Patients around the world are relying on it.”


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