Source: Wall Street Journal
After a meeting last week between President Barack Obama and the recently elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the White House issued a statement that included a brief passage saying a new “high level” working group on intellectual property was being created.
The statement prompted concern from advocacy groups that closely track the contentious interplay between access to affordable medicines and pharmaceutical patents. In their view, the initiative may become a tool for pressuring India to change its approach to patent law
Why? India is something of a pharmacy to the world, because so many generic drug makers are based there. Moreover, India has also irked brand-name drug makers with laws and court rulings that have made it easier for their generic rivals to sell lower-cost, copycat versions of their medicines.
This has generated concern in Washington. The U.S. Trade Representative regularly places India on its priority watch list for countries that fail to sufficiently protect and enforce patent rights. And last month, members of Congress asked the International Trade Commission for a second report on India’s trade policies, which they argue discriminate against U.S. exports and investment.
To patient advocates, the White House statement was reminiscent of other efforts where they claim access to medicines clashed with industry interests. As an example, they point to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks in which documents leaked two years ago suggesting the U.S. Trade Rep was pushing for measures that would benefit global brand-name drug makers at the expense of ensuring access to high-priced medicines. Advocates have complained the talks have lacked transparency.
“The US has created IP working groups and other trade working groups in the past,” Brook Baker, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law and a senior policy analyst for Health GAP, an advocacy group, writes us. “And in each instance, the working groups, which include advisors who strongly favor stronger US-style patent… protections for medicines, push for longer, stronger, and broader intellectual property protections and intellectual property enforcement measures.
“The U.S. government is on record, both in trade agreements and in its annual [priority] watch list, that it opposes India’s strict standards on pharmaceutical patents. The U.S. pharmaceutical fox will be in the India hen house protecting the U.S.’s pharmaceutical giants instead of poor patients in India and elsewhere who need access to more affordable medicines.”
Adds Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International, a non-profit that tracks patent and access issues: “The United States likes to set up formal mechanisms to deliver superpower pressure on behalf of lobbyists… Patient groups in India should be concerned about this committee.”
To what extent such concerns will be confirmed remains to be seen. Modi has been in office only a few months and his election presents U.S. officials with an opportunity to form new relationships and understanding about trade issues. His stance toward these matters is uncertain, although in speeches in New York before his meeting with Obama, Modi promised that India is open for business.
A spokesman for the U.S. Trade Rep sent us this: “The U.S. and India both want to strike the right balance on intellectual property issues. This working group is an opportunity to do so. Ensuring IP protections is vital to keeping in place the incentives for the development of new, life-saving medicine. We are committed to doing everything we can to promote both innovation and access to medicine.”
He adds that the working group will be convened “as a regularized channel” under the auspices of the U.S.-India Trade Policy Forum in which trade officials from both countries attempt to resolve various issues.
We also asked the Prime Minister’s office in India for a response and will update you accordingly.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: We neglected to include a comment from the Global Intellectual Property Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which sent us this comment: “We believe that a substantive dialogue between the U.S. and Indian governments on intellectual property has the potential to enhance India’s competitiveness in innovative industries, help attract increased foreign direct investment to India, and contribute to a stronger bilateral relationship. We hope that the IP working group will lead to a principled commitment to the legal rights of patent, copyright, and trademark holders by the Indian government. This will be key to helping U.S. investors regain confidence that their IP will be adequately protected when investing in India.”]