Doctors warn of healthcare impact from Pacific trade pact

February 13
7:12 AM 2015

Doctors and health professionals from both sides of the Pacific on Thursday said they worry that a major regional trade pact could result in higher medical costs and urged a full assessment of the pact's impact on healthcare.

In a letter to be published in The Lancet medical journal, academics and medical associations from seven of the 12 countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership voiced their concerns over the deal, which seeks to cut tariffs and set common standards on intellectual property.

"Rising medicine costs would disproportionately affect already vulnerable populations, obstructing efforts to improve health equity within and between countries," they wrote in the letter. 

"We call on our governments to publicly release the full (TPP) draft text, and to secure independent and comprehensive assessments of the health and human rights consequences of the proposed agreement for each nation."

The letter was signed by 27 academics, doctors and health professionals, including the heads of the Public Health Association of Australia, the Public Health Association of New Zealand, the Canadian Public Health Association, the Vietnam Public Health Association and the Malaysia AIDS Council.

With the TPP talks nearing completion, one of the thorniest outstanding issues is the monopoly period for biologic drugs, which include some of the latest cancer treatments, such as Roche Holding AG's Herceptin for breast cancer and Merck & Co's Gardasil for cervical cancer.

The United States protects biologics for 12 years, while Japan protects them for eight years and Australia for five. Some other countries like Chile have no special protections at all.

The issue is particularly difficult for Australia and New Zealand, which have taxpayer-funded subsidy schemes for medicines. Costs could balloon if cheaper generic drugs are slower to come to market.

Deborah Gleeson, a lecturer at Australia's La Trobe University and one of the letter's authors, estimates that generic versions of the 10 most expensive drugs available under that country's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme would save more than A$200 million a year.

The Australian and New Zealand trade ministers have both said they will do nothing to undermine public health programs.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said on Jan. 27 that the United States had argued that data protection can help promote innovation and make sure that drugs come to markets earlier, but acknowledged the issue was "one of the most difficult."

"Our goal is on one hand to promote innovation and creativity in this country, and also to ensure access to affordable medicines, particularly in developing countries," he told a congressional hearing.

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