As the European Commission's bid to pressure India into signing a free trade agreement draws to a conclusion, protests have been held in Asia, Africa and Europe by opponents who are demanding the withdrawal of provisions that they say will harm access to medicines across the developing world.
As India's commerce minister Anand Sharma gets ready to meet EC trade commissioner Karel de Gucht in Brussels on April 15, activists from organisations including Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Stop AIDS Campaign and Health Action International Europe massed outside the European Parliament in the Belgian capital. In a zombie-themed flashmob, they have been protesting after learning through leaked texts, according to HAI Europe, "that the EC, in closed-door negotiations, is aggressively pushing for stronger industry control at the expense of public health, threatening millions of lives".
MSF claims that under pressure from public health groups, "certain provisions damaging to access to medicines such as patent term extensions have been removed" from the proposed deal. However, the intellectual property enforcement and investment provisions "are still seriously concerning, particularly as an early April deadline to sign the agreement is imminent".
MSF adds that the enforcement measures could lead to generic medicines being prohibited from leaving India to other developing countries "on the mere allegation that a patent or trademark is being infringed". This could "also embroil treatment providers in legal battles simply for providing generic medicines to patients".
The investment part of the FTA would expand companies’ ability to sue the Indian government when it regulates health in the public interest, MSF said, for example by overriding a drug patent to increase access to a medicine, or through drug price controls. It claims that "these disputes would be handled outside of domestic courts in secret settlement panels, with large sums in damages at stake".
Leïla Bodeux, a policy officer at Oxfam, said that "in the wake of several recent pro-public health decisions in India, the EU is now doubly keen to shut down India as the ‘pharmacy to the developing world’ and ensure the profits of its pharmaceutical companies are kept intact". She added that 80% of AIDS medicines in the developing world come from India and "if the EU succeeds in retaining the harmful provisions that remain in the agreement, it would cut off this lifeline supply for millions of people".