Alex Blaze

When "free trade" really means "restricting trade"

Filed By Alex Blaze | December 01, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

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The Independent in the UK has a special World AIDS Day issue that's worth looking through, and I wanted to zoom in on this article because access to HIV/AIDS medication, while restricted and soon to be more restricted in the US, can be fairly harsh outside these borders. A drug regimen in the US averages around $25,000 a year, so for countries where the average income is $1000 a year or less, it's completely inaccessible.

aids-africa.jpgBut keeping people away from life-saving medication is a requirement when it comes to making big money off these medications. If people don't see that they'll be left to die if they don't pay a hefty price (or get someone else to pay for them), then they simply won't do it. As radical, fundamentalist capitalism takes over the world, the only way to really enforce it is with death and violence, and that appears to be what's happening here as the EU is trying to limit the production of generic anti-retrovirals coming out of India through a "free trade" agreement:

More than 80 per cent of ARVs bought by donors for use in Africa come from India. Since 2003, the average cost of treating an HIV patient has fallen from nearly $500 a year to $70, says the International Aids Society. Since 2001, Indian generics have provided antiretroviral treatment for 4 million HIV-positive people in the developing world. They are the reason Stella is alive, and that she still has a mother and brother. But this remarkable progress is under threat.[...]

The clause causing most concern is "data exclusivity", which would effectively block Indian producers from registering copies of foreign drugs, including those not protected by the existing patents system. This would mean delays of up to 10 years in delivery of generic versions of new, improved medicines and up to 15 years in the case of paediatric versions of the same drugs.

More after.

M├ędecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which treats hundreds of thousands of patients in the developing world, is campaigning against the changes and demanding talks with the EU. "It is a case where profits are coming before lives," said Dr Unni Karunakara, the MSF president. "We are talking about real lives. They may be hidden away in remote areas but they are real. There are millions of lives depending on these cheap drugs, so we're saying hands off our medicines."

He warns that "data exclusivity", and clauses that could see safe generics seized and destroyed as counterfeits at EU ports, will "criminalise" vital medicines and drive up costs for Indian manufacturers. Those costs would then drastically hit the ability of doctors in poor countries to offer free treatment.

EU officials insist the changes will not affect India's ability to export affordable drugs. "My position, and that of the EU, is very clear," Karel De Gucht, EU Trade Commissioner, said. "We are negotiating a free trade agreement between the EU and India. Any agreement will have no impact on the right or the capacity of India to produce generic medicines." But MSF is sceptical about those promises.

First, why should those cheap generics be blocked from the EU? One of the great things about European medical systems is that they pay a lot less for medication because their governments allow cheap generics to be imported. The US, on the other hand, blocks many of them so that the American people have to pay more for the same thing (in case you weren't paying close attention to the health care debate last year, this is one of the big reasons a sane system that covers everyone would cost much less than America's current health care system, not more).

So whether or not this agreement affects drug prices in Africa, it's affecting access to HIV/AIDS medications. European health care systems don't cover 100% of drug costs for everyone, and even if they did, banning cheap, completely legal generics only raises the price that the taxpayers have to put into the system.

But HIV/AIDS medications, even though they're much cheaper in Africa, are usually covered through foreign aide or private charities because the price of the drugs in comparison to local income is still prohibitively high. A small increase in price could drive down the number of people who can be covered through free money, cutting off lots of people from these drugs.

The entire article is worth a read and negotiations are still going on, but if you ever wondered why some people rail against neoliberalism, this is why. It's not that it's a system that unfortunately leaves some people behind as a side effect of redistributing wealth upwards; it's a system that requires people to die in order to maintain profits.

Considering the health care debate we had last year, the states cutting off access to HIV/AIDS medication because of budget problems, and the Social Security debate we're getting into for no reason this year, we can't pretend anymore that notions of patriotism or American exceptionalism or even Americans being spoiled is going to stop these folks from exploiting the US in the same way that they've been doing to other countries for decades. The party's over for us, so the sooner we realize it and start fighting back, the better.


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