As Indian and European Union (EU) trade officials meet in Brussels this week for further sessions of their long-running Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations, thousands have protested against the deal's plans for generic drugs.

Patients and health activists marched through New Delhi yesterday urging India's trade negotiators not to accept intellectual property (IP) provisions being sought by the EU which they say, will jeopardise India's position as "the pharmacy of the developing world."

Protesters claim that the EU is seeking IP concessions from India which go beyond the requirements of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which India joined in 1995. India began granting patents under WTO rules in 2005 but, when it designed its patent law, it prioritised public health, limiting patents to drugs that are new and not "just routine improvements to older medicines," say critics.

They are particularly concerned at the EU's demands that India should grant data exclusivity provisions to drugmakers which, they say, would act like a patent and keep cheaper generics off the market, even for medicines which are already off-patent. Indian patent legislation does not currently prove data exclusivity. 

"India's law has long annoyed multinational pharmaceutical companies, and Novartis and Bayer have even tried to overturn the law in the Indian courts," said Loon Gangte, of the Delhi Network of Positive People, speaking at the protest in New Delhi. "They have failed so far, but companies have now convinced European governments to take up their fight for pharmaceutical profits," he added.

"Data exclusivity has proven to be damaging to public health in FTAs in other countries," said Anand Grover, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, who was with the marchers. "It would be a colossal mistake to introduce data exclusivity in India, when millions of people across the globe depend on the country." 

"More than 80% of the AIDS drugs our medical practitioners use to treat 175,000 people in developing countries are affordable generics from India," said Paul Cawthorne of international aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres' (MSF) Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. "Beyond AIDS, we rely on producers in India for drugs to treat other illnesses, such as tuberculosis and malaria. We cannot afford to let our patients' lifeline to be cut."

While EU negotiators insist that none of the provisions which they are seeking would damage India's world-leading role in the provision of cheaper generic medicines, observers say their concerns have been aroused by the fact that the Indian government is not making the details of the proposed FTA available to the public.

The EU is India's largest trading partner. FTA negotiations between the two sides have been underway since 2007, and trade officials are hoping to have the deal finalised this spring.