The health ministers of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) have been urged not to let "trade barriers and concerns for individual profiteering stand in the way of equitable and affordable public health services."

The call came from India's Minister for Health and Family Welfare, Shri Ghulam Nabi Azad, addressing the first meeting of BRICS health ministers, held in Beijing, China. The ministers have pledged to work together and with international agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS to establish a global health agenda for universal access to affordable, safe and effective medicines and vaccines.

The BRICS countries are "uniquely and strategically positioned to enhance collaboration among themselves and with developing countries with their sizeable pharmaceutical, vaccine and health technology industries," Shri Azad told the meeting.

The health ministers’ new collaboration therefore "opens up significant opportunities for leveraging a global health agenda for universal access to affordable health care products and services of assured quality. This is our strength and we must be cautious and guard against all strategic moves which impede local innovation and availability of affordable medicines," he warned.

The BRICS group must collectively address the issue of trade barriers "which restrict access to newly-developed and future medicines. Intellectual property rights (IPR) barriers, including patents and data exclusivity, cause delays in generic competition in the market, which is one of the most efficient ways to bring prices down," he added.

Supporting other countries in interpreting and implementing the World Trade Organisation (WHO)'s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) agreement "would be in the interest of producers based in the BRICS countries and create a win-win situation for the BRICS countries as well as a wide range of middle- and lower-income countries," Shri Azad told the meeting.

He added: "we must guard against the enforcement of IPR through the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force (ACTA) which will deter generic competition," and urged the nations to resist any international agreements that interfere with the use of TRIPs flexibilities or require TRIPs-plus measures.

"Competition from generic companies is the key to affordable drugs. We cannot therefore let trade barriers and concerns for individual profiteering stand in the way of equitable and affordable public health services," the Minister urged. 

In her address to the conference, WHO director general Margaret Chan called on the BRICS nations to increase their production of generics, because such competition with other manufacturers would allow prices to fall.

She said that when the WHO had approached "all the major manufacturers of the world" to provide a meningococcal vaccine African nations costing no more than 50 cents, none had been able to meet this critical cost criterion. However, the Serum Institute of India was able to provide the vaccine, and it "has saved hundreds and thousands of lives in low- and middle-income African countries, where a person contracting meningitis often means four or five months of a household's income," she said.

The BRICS nations account for 40% of the world's population and also supply more than 70% of all vaccines purchased by international procurement agencies. UNAIDS' executive director Michel Sidibe, who welcomed the group as a "new voice" which would "help us to change the course of debate on public health,” also noted that the BRICS nations are home to more than a third of the world's HIV/AIDS population, whose lives, he said: "are much better with quality, safe and efficacious antiretroviral therapy drugs being supplied by India at a fraction of the cost at which they were being supplied previously."

South Africa's Health Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, also pointed out that most of the affordable drugs which supply the developing world come from BRICS countries, "so we think the partnership is strong enough to be able to influence events around the world."