Seizures at European ports of generic drugs bound for developing nations have again been attacked by critics, who say the shipments are legal and accuse the European Union (EU) of double standards.

Moreover, the EU is contradicting global trade rules by putting the interests of pharmaceutical majors ahead of those of the 2 billion people worldwide who cannot access essential medicines, claim nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) Oxfam International and Health Action International (HAI), in a new joint report published yesterday.

Since late 2008, Germany and the Netherlands have made customs seizures totalling 19 shipments of generic drugs at ports in these countries in transit to developing countries - following allegations from patentholders that the drugs were counterfeit - even though the shipments were legitimate under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, says the report. Of the last 17 shipments - 16 from India and one from China – five were bound for Peru, four for Colombia, two each for Ecuador and Mexico and one each for Brazil, Nigeria, Portugal and Spain.

The drugs seized included treatments for HIV/AIDS, heart disease, schizophrenia and dementia, say the NGOs.

The EU is leaning on developing nations to surrender their guaranteed rights to affordable generic medicines and is calling for intellectual property (IP) rules to be toughened under free trade deals (FTAs) - all measures which will increase drug prices in these countries, say the NGOs. However, they add that, at the same time, Europe is trying to reduce domestic medicine prices, with 24 out of the Community’s 27 member states having already taken steps to implement drug price controls. Moreover, the European Commission is investigating the pharmaceutical industry for IP abuses in the EU market and is contemplating action against companies for alleged wrong-doing.

“The EU is guilty of double standards - one rule for the rich and another for the poor,” said Elise Ford, head of EU advocacy at Oxfam. European policies are directly responsible for the rising costs of medicines in developing countries, which spend as much as 60% of their health budgets on medicines. Moreover, millions of poor people in these countries have to pay for medicines out of their own pockets, so even a small price rise can make them unaffordable, she noted.

And according to Sophie Bloemen, projects officer at HAI Europe, “there is growing evidence that the EU’s trade agenda is causing severe damage to public health in developing countries.”

The NGOs’ report was published as India confirmed that it would be filing a formal complaint against the seizures with the World Trade organisation (WTO), following the failure of recent efforts to resolve the issue amicably. The government has appointed a lawyer to handle the case, and the complaint could be filed within a month or so, a Commerce Ministry spokesman has said. Brazil is also due to file a complaint with the WTO over the seizures.