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Ramesh Shankar, Mumbai June 02 , 2017
Even as trade talks between India and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries of Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein resume in Liechtenstein, the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has expressed concern over some of the provisions in the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which will erode India’s ability to produce and supply generic medicines for people across the developing world.

According to MSF, there is tremendous pressure on India from Swiss negotiators and industry. The leaked document on the Swiss demands covers local working of patents, lowering the standards on patentability of biotechnology products including biological drugs and data exclusivity.

Through this deal, Swiss pharmaceutical corporations are working to erode India’s ability to produce and supply generic medicines for people across the developing world. The proposed provisions in the FTA would promote a strategy that pharmaceutical corporations use to prolong their monopolies, called ‘evergreening.’ The provisions proposed by Swiss negotiators include ‘data exclusivity,’ a form of monopoly via the regulatory system that prevents the marketing of generic formulations, even when a medicine is not patented or no longer patented, the MSF stated.

“India’s patent law puts people’s lives over pharmaceutical corporations’ profits, and millions of people across the developing world are alive today because of affordable generic medicines made in India. Swiss pharmaceutical corporations have long been trying to stamp out the competition from India, and now through the EFTA-India trade deal have enlisted the Swiss government to their bidding. By pushing for so-called ‘data exclusivity,’ pharmaceutical corporations are trying to get a backdoor route to a monopoly, even when a drug doesn’t merit a patent under India’s law.

We urge the Indian negotiators to stand strong and reject any provisions that will be harmful for people’s access to the medicines they need to stay alive and healthy,” said Leena Menghaney, South Asia Head, MSF Access Campaign.

Pharmaceutical corporations have long been seeking a more extensive granting of patent protection on medicines than that offered by India’s pro-public-health law. In 2006, Swiss pharmaceutical corporation Novartis took the Indian government to court in a long-drawn out legal battle over its 2005 Patents Act (Novartis vs. Union of India – see below). In India’s Patents Act, Section 3(d) discourages the granting of patents on new forms of known medicines, effectively preventing evergreening. Abusive evergreening practices and safeguards to prevent them were central to this case, and to the future of India’s role as ‘pharmacy of the developing world. ‘Novartis lost in India’s Supreme Court in 2013.

MSF relies heavily on affordable generic medicines from India to do its medical work around the world. Two thirds of the medicines MSF uses to treat people with HIV, tuberculosis and malaria are generics made in India. Fierce market competition among generic manufacturers in India resulted in the price of HIV medicines coming down by nearly 99%, from $10,000 per person per year in 2000 to around $150. Ten years later – today, treatment is available for less than $100. This has allowed HIV treatment to be dramatically scaled up, with more than 18 million people receiving antiretroviral therapy today, the MSF further stated.

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