Politics of Poverty

NGO scaremonger? Or pharmaceutical flunky?

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Oxfam and pharmaceutical interests spar over free trade and access to health

Trade can be an engine for development if its benefits reach those living in poverty. Oxfam has argued for this for more than a decade. Philip Stevens of the Emerging Markets Health Network, in a Wall Street Journal Asia op-ed at the end of last year, calls this “NGO scaremongering.”

Stephanie Burgos, Senior Policy Advisor for Trade

Stephanie Burgos, Senior Policy Advisor at Oxfam America, responds in this letter to the editor.


The TPP Would Be a Bitter Pill

Philip Stevens’s diagnosis of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement and Oxfam’s perspective on it (“Free Trade is Good for Health” op-ed, Dec. 18) is plain wrong.

Oxfam has long been a supporter of trade for development and economic growth, provided rules are fair for rich and poor countries alike. The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), however, only favors multinational drug companies through new intellectual property (IP) rules at the expense of the health of millions in developing countries.

Generic competition, which begins when monopoly protection for medicines expire, is the way countries can reduce medicine prices. New IP rules delay generic competition and thus low-cost medicines in developing countries. Poor people go without treatment or make dire economic sacrifices.

The World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines avoids recommending patented medicines, despite their public health value, because they are too expensive. Mr. Stevens cites the list as evidence that patents don’t matter, when it is precisely a testament to the unfairness of excessive IP rules. Suggesting that developing country patients should be satisfied by access to a limited range of older treatments is outrageously unfair.

Mr. Stevens defends data exclusivity because it generates profits for drug companies, but fails to mention its negative impacts on public health. Oxfam’s research in Jordan, which introduced data exclusivity in 2001 under a U.S. trade agreement, showed the measure significantly contributed to a 20% increase in medicine prices. Other rules demanded by the U.S. will also invite abuse of the patent system by drug companies, tie the hands of governments who want to negotiate prices with drug companies, and distract drug regulators from focusing their efforts on ensuring the safety of medicines.

Intellectual property rules must be calibrated to ensure incentives for innovators are balanced with broader public interests. The IP rules proposed by the US in the TPP upset this balance. This is not a matter of perception. It is right there on paper at the negotiating table.

Five years ago, the U.S. revised trade agreements with Peru, Panama and Colombia to limit the damage the agreements could wreak to public health, but deep-pocketed special interests are now holding the U.S. back.

Here’s to hoping that won’t be the case in 2013.

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