WHO Head Joins Chorus Denouncing TPP's Blow to Public Health, Boon to Big Pharma

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WHO Head Joins Chorus Denouncing TPP's Blow to Public Health, Boon to Big Pharma

There are 'some very serious concerns' regarding the 12-nation trade pact, Margaret Chan said.

Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, speaking at the launching of the World Report on Ageing and Health in September.  (Photo: Pan American Health Organization-PAHO / World Health Organization-WHO/flickr/cc)

Adding to the chorus of voices sounding alarm on the impacts of the pending TransPacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday that there were "some very serious concerns" regarding the 12-nation pact. 

Speaking to a conference in Geneva, Margaret Chan mentioned concern "about interference by powerful economic operators," and said, "I have been hearing some serious concerns that the TransPacific Partnership, the biggest trade agreement ever, may adversely affect the market for generics and biosimilars and increase the cost of medicines."

Repeating a comment she made in 2014, Chan asked, "If these agreements open trade yet close the door to affordable medicines we have to ask the question: is this really progress at all?"

"High prices block access," she added.

Tim Fernholz reported for Quartz Monday that the U.S., through the TPP, was exporting Big Pharma-friendly policies that keep drug prices high:

"Though the US in the end relented on some of its demands to protect its drug makers from competition—to the point where some US trade boosters threatened to pull their backing for the deal—the TPP still obliges signatory countries to accept many of the patent rules that help drug firms keep prices high in the US." [. . . ]

While the final agreement was significantly less restrictive than some advocates feared, trade lawyers who reviewed the intellectual property chapter (pdf) say it protects pharmaceutical patents more than previous trade deals do—in particular the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), a global floor on patent rules that has loopholes to ensure cheap access to medicines.

As economist Dean Baker wrote this year ahead of the release of the official text, "the leaked intellectual property chapter indicates several extension of patent and related monopoly protections that would be expected to raise prices. Of course it is not 'certain' that the effect will be to raise drug prices, just as it is not certain that shooting someone at close range will lead to their death."

"Patent monopolies," he wrote in a separate post, "provide both enormous incentive and opportunity for drug companies to increase profits at the expense of patients."

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz spoke about the issue on Thursday as well, telling Democracy Now!, "TPP, I think, is a very big mistake." He echoed Chan's concern that failure to lower generic drug prices will mean "many millions of people will be left behind."

You know, ordinary people need to be able to get medicines at a low price. We struck a balance in the United States in the Hatch-Waxman Act, where we said, "OK, Big Pharma has to be able to get some returns for their investments and research." But—mostly research really goes on in the universities, let’s be clear, and at NIH government-sponsored research labs. But the generic medicines, which are now more than 80 percent of all drugs, bring the prices down. That’s the competition that makes the market work. Well, we struck that balance, but in this trade agreement they’re trying to restrike the balance in favor of Big Pharma. You know, this is—we were talking about President Obama’s legacy. One of his big legacy is Obamacare, and that’s supposed to bring access to medicine. But when you—TPP will go in exactly the wrong way, because it will restrict access to medicine for many countries around the world.

Other medical groups have joined the WHO in expressing concern over the deal, with professor Heather Yeatman, president of the Public Health Association of Australia, saying, "The TPP will be a blow for global health if it places life-saving medicines out of reach in developing countries."

And Judit Rius Sanjuan, U.S. manager and legal policy adviser of the Médecins Sans Frontières Access Campaign said last month: "The big losers in the TPP are patients and treatment providers in developing countries. Although the text has improved over the initial demands, the TPP will still go down in history as the worst trade agreement for access to medicines in developing countries, which will be forced to change their laws to incorporate abusive intellectual property protections for pharmaceutical companies."

World governments finally made public the full text of the TPP last week, and it was immediately denounced by advocacy groups as "a disaster" and "worse than anything we could've imagined."

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