Federal Politics


Australia must fight for cheap life-saving medicines

It is in the nation's interest at home and as part of foreign policy, KELLY NICHOLLS writes

Affordable access to life-saving medicines in our region and in developing countries around the world will be put under threat if restrictive intellectual property policies pushed by the United States are included in the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement being negotiated this week in Melbourne.

The government must stand up and ensure affordable access to lifesaving medicines in the region and across developing countries.

At the 11th round of TPP Agreement negotiations in Melbourne, aggressive intellectual property provisions that go beyond what international law requires and trump safeguards for public health included in other trade agreements will be discussed.

The developing countries included in the agreement - Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Peru, and Vietnam - will be put under intense pressure. Australia can and must stand with them against these harmful demands. The US demands include requirements to lower the bar for granting patents, limit the capacity to challenge patents, and impose new forms of monopolies and of intellectual property enforcement - all measures that delay the introduction of more affordable medicines. If these demands are successful, this will wind back the clock on many of the achievements of the past decade in bringing prices down on important drugs generically produced for diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

The first generation of HIV/AIDS drugs have come down in price by almost 99 per cent over the past decade, from $US10,000 per person a year in 2000 to roughly $US150 today, thanks to generic production in India, Brazil and Thailand, where these drugs were not patented or legal flexibilities to lift patent barriers have been used. This dramatic price drop has been instrumental in helping scale up HIV/AIDS treatment for more than six million people in developing countries. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) is heavily reliant on the availability of affordable generic medicines to treat more than 170,000 people with HIV/AIDS in 19 countries. We are not alone in this; about 80 per cent of donor-funded anti-AIDS drugs and 92 per cent of drugs to treat children with AIDS across the developing world come from generic manufacturers. But, this could be under threat if the intellectual property provisions are included in the TPP. And the concern is not only for this trade agreement, but also for the precedent that it may set.

Encompassing nine countries to start (Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the US), the TPP is billed as a vehicle for economic integration across the Asia Pacific and a template for successive future regional trade agreements. As such, if hard-line intellectual property policies are included, the TPP has the potential to diminish access to affordable medicines for millions of people in developing countries in the region and beyond.


It is in Australia's national interest to protect access to affordable medicines in developing countries, particularly in the Asia-Pacific where Australia is a major provider of official development assistance. It is also consistent with Australia's commitments outlined in the sixth National Strategy on HIV and the 2011 UN Political Declaration on HIV. The declaration states that before 2015, signatories will remove obstacles that limit the capacity for low and middle-income countries to provide affordable and effective HIV prevention and treatment products. It is also in line with our support of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which is heavily reliant on the use of generic medicines. If these provisions are included in the TPP, medicines will be more expensive for Australia and for the global health programs we are currently supporting.

Australia has been emerging as a major player on the international stage for global public health, development and particularly in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Recent portfolio changes should not detract from the momentum gained from its leading role as a co-facilitator and key negotiator at the UN High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS in June. The declaration in New York committed Australia and other UN members to '15 by 15': scaling up to a total of 15 million people on HIV treatment by 2015. If anything, the new foreign minister should pay special attention to this admirable goal: A target that is only possible if agreements such as the TPP are successful at keeping the cost of medicines within reach.

Australian government representatives must hold their ground in the Melbourne talks and reject proposals for strict intellectual property policies to be included. To do so will not only benefit Australia's own foreign aid policies in the region and internationally, but will support people in the negotiating countries ensure ongoing access to affordable essential medicines.

Kelly Nicholls is an advocacy co-ordinator with Médecins Sans Frontières Australia, an independent, international medical humanitarian organisation.