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Trade agreement a ‘surgical strike’ against public health

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The AMA has urged the Federal Government to shield the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and public health policy from restrictive trade rules amid fears the United States is pushing for an agreement that would force up the cost of medicine and curb health measures like tobacco plain packaging.

As the final round of talks on the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty for the year wrapped up in Singapore last week without resolution, the AMA called for the Government to hold firm against any attempts to impede access to cheaper medicines or hamper public health initiatives.

AMA Vice President Professor Geoffrey Dobb said it was vital that the TPP did not interfere with the operation of the PBS or limit the right of Australian governments to make laws in important areas of public health policy.

There has been mounting concern that the Australian Government was giving ground in the face of strident United States demands for an extension of intellectual property rights for patent holders and provisions allowing corporations to challenge government decisions, including public health policies.

The negotiations for the agreement, encompassing 12 countries on the Pacific rim, including the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Vietnam and Singapore, are being conducted behind closed doors, but leaked information indicates the US has been pushing hard for increased intellectual property protections, including extending patent law to cover plants, animals and medical procedures, provisions making it easier to “ever-green” patents, and laws to lock up clinical data for biological medical products for 12 years.

In addition, the US has proposed investor-state dispute settlement provisions that it is feared would enable corporations to challenge public health measures such as the imposition of plain packaging laws for tobacco products.

Professor Dobb urged the Australian Government to refuse any provisions that would encroach on national health policy.

“The Government must insist that trade agreements, including the TPP, do not extend the intellectual property rights of patent holders, interfere with the operation of the PBS, or provide foreign corporations with investor-state dispute settlement rights to challenge domestic public health policies,” he said.

Documents released by website Wikileaks last week appeared to lend substance to the AMA’s concerns, indicating that although Australian negotiators had rejected two US demands regarding pharmaceuticals – to protect clinical data for 12 years and to extend patents where there had been regulatory delays in approval – they were one of the few to accede to the US calls for a medicines annex to the TPP.

But Trade Minister Andrew Robb insisted the Government would not compromise the health care regime or the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in its negotiations.

‘””There has been a lot of quite ill-informed commentary and speculation regarding our negotiating positions,” Mr Robb told The Australian. “We have repeatedly said that we will not entertain anything that compromises the integrity of our health system or PBS. The mandate provided . . . by Cabinet is very clear on this.”

Intellectual property expert Matthew Rimmer, of Australian National University, warned in The Conversation that the terms of the TPP were a “matter of life and death: it will affect access to life-saving medicines, drugs and treatments in developed and developing countries across the Pacific”.

Associate Professor Rimmer and his colleague Alexandra Phelan warned that “the US and its allies have proposed measures that would raise prices and reduce competition”.

“The TPP is a surgical strike against public health.”

Medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres said the US Government seemed “determined to give pharmaceutical companies more power to raise the cost of medicines for millions of people around the world, while curtailing the power of governments to protect public health”.

The Obama Administration had set a deadline to complete negotiations on the pact by the end of this month, but the failure of the latest round of talks, held in Singapore last week, means that negotiations will continue into 2014. The next round is due to commence next month.

Adrian Rollins