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A high-level panel hosted by India as part of the BRICS group of countries discussed the issues of trade deals that inhibit access to medicines and also limit policy space for governments to legislate in public interest.

The Union Minister of State for Health & Family Welfare Shripad Naik called the proliferation of regional trade agreements “a reality” but added that these processes should move “within the ambit” of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

“We believe that the regional processes must move in tandem with the rules, standards and multilateral trade liberalization, within the ambit of the WTO, to maximize overall gains, for all countries,” Naik said at the event that was organized on the sidelines of the 69th World Health Assembly that kicked off in Geneva on 23 May.

“This will also pave the way for an expanded access to affordable medicines across the globe,” he added.

This is the first time that India hosted an event on health as the president of the BRICS bloc for this year. The panel that was co-sponsored by the BRICS countries saw a full house with attendance from the health ministers and deputy health ministers from across the BRICS bloc and also from Chile, apart from the presence of the Director-General of World Health Organisation (WHO) Margaret Chan and UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibé.
Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

“The regional trade agreements should give priority to public health services, in particular remove barriers to all stakeholders that may endanger medicine accessibility and promote policy coordination,” said Li Bin, Chair of the National Health and Family Planning Commission in China.

Li and the Russian deputy minister of health Sergei Kraevoi called out for a better coordination among the BRICS countries that have robust generics industries to both counter spiraling drug prices and ensure better access for its population.

Citing a report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law published in 2012 by the UN, South African Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi, said that the current laws are failing to promote access innovation that serve the medical needs of the poor.

“Human well-being is the only reason we are ever given when any company innovates any new pharmaceutical (product). No other reason has ever been offered, at least not in public. We are not insensitive to the financial well-being of pharmaceutical companies, we are just but more sensitive to human well-being,” Motsoaledi said.

Increasing patents for non-communicable diseases (NCDs)—the incidence of which has steeply risen in India in the past few years—and also for biologics, is a glaring reality that poses emerging challenges to governments. The flexibilities ensured under the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement “are less likely to solve the problem of affordability and accessibility for this”. The developing states will have to find alternate methods to access these medicines “so people in developing countries may live”, the South African minister added.
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