No access to medicine?

How the U.S. plans to limit access to medication in the developing world

Part of the world’s economy is about to dive into an extensive ‘deal’ which, if passed, could have a huge social and economic impact in Canada and 11 other countries. The problem is, apart from the 30 people actually negotiating the deal, no one is allowed to know what the main actors involved are agreeing to.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is an extensive free trade agreement that is presently being negotiated between 12 countries – Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, Canada, the U.S., Brunei, Singapore, New Zealand, and Chile. This agreement was initially established in 2005 between four nations – Brunei, Singapore, Chile, and New Zealand – with the intention to liberalize, or relax government restrictions on, economic relations in the Asia-Pacific region. However, in the span of eight years, and as new countries, including the U.S. and Japan, have come on board, the power and socially harmful provisions of the TPP have dramatically increased.

For “practical reasons, for our ability both to preserve negotiating strength and to encourage our partners to be willing to put issues on the table they may not otherwise, we have to preserve some measure of discretion and confidentiality.” Ron Kirk, U.S. trade representative

Free trade agreements, like the TPP, are pacts between countries to lift most or all tariffs, quotas, special fees, and other barriers in trade negotiations between the countries involved. The benefits and consequences accrued from liberal trade agreements vary between each nation. Professor Mark Brawley, of McGill’s Department of Political Science, explained to The Daily that “in theory, liberalized trade is a good thing because it delivers more economic benefits,” because each country can produce whatever it produces best and share that product with everyone at else at a cheaper cost. Sounds nice, right? On the flipside though, Brawley says that there are concerns with free trade, namely that giving up certain kinds of decisions or conceiving certain aspects of governmental rule can be dangerous from a social perspective. Some of the issues currently being negotiated include deregulation and taxation for the trade of goods between countries involved, creating a food safety standard between countries, privatization of state-provided utilities such as water and electricity, environmental regulations, internet control, and most importantly, stringent intellectual property provisions for all countries within the partnership.

Details on the current state of TPP negotiations are strictly concealed from the public. Ron Kirk, U.S. trade representative, has expressed to the Huffington Post Canada that for “practical reasons, for our ability both to preserve negotiating strength and to encourage our partners to be willing to put issues on the table they may not otherwise, we have to preserve some measure of discretion and confidentiality.” While this secrecy is certainly beneficial for the negotiators, it is very worrisome for the public. In a democratic state, we are supposed to be able to put a lot of faith in our leaders, and supposed transparency in their actions keep them in check. By having this agreement codified into law without any transparency or public input until finalized, could lead to regulations that benefit the negotiators and leave the public in the dark, coping with the consequences. It also goes against the fundamental philosophy of a democratic nation that an agreement be finalized without public knowledge and input. Further aggravating matters, the Obama administration has attained ‘fast-tracking’ status for the agreement, meaning that the U.S. Congress would be allowed a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote, and amendments to the agreement would not be permitted.

This agreement would promote privatization of commodities, and would enable corporations to be less inhibited by local governments’ regulations and taxations. In other words, this would be a great deal for that top ‘1 per cent’ running large corporations, and potentially not so great for the other ‘99 per cent.’ Since large corporations would be more than happy to have these provisions pass, it would be naïve to assume that backdoor ‘promotion’ of the TPP to Congress members by these corporations would not seriously affect their votes.

Canada has followed the U.S.’s example, keeping the agreement very private. Many Members of Parliament (MPs) are protesting that they have been forbidden to look at this document, including New Democratic Party MP Don Davies. Fortunately (for Canada), information about the TPP that has been leaked so far doesn’t put Canada’s population at quite the same disadvantage as it does for developing countries. One of the main concerns with the TPP is in privatization and patenting of healthcare, medicines, and medical innovations – and since Canada has already implemented ‘universal healthcare,’ this does not affect its population to the same extent. However, medicines not covered by provincial healthcare would become much costlier, for reasons discussed later.

The TPP’s looming impact on the future of global health is extremely worrying as the public gets hold of more information. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, reports that leaked drafts of TPP negotiations discuss the possibility of implementing far more vigorous policies regarding the protection of intellectual property. Currently, more than 80 per cent of AIDS drugs used that the MSF uses, as well as drugs to treat malaria and other communicable diseases, are generics coming out of India. Greater protection of intellectual property would mean that pharmaceutical companies have the right to hold onto drug patents much longer, a huge obstacle in the production of generic medicines. Such policies would hinder access and delay provision of affordable life-saving drugs to low and middle-income nations. MSF also outlines how the proposed TPP agreement can become a standard for any future agreement on intellectual property, the concern being that these provisions may be forced upon other developing nations and ultimately limit the supply of medicines that could save millions. In fact, according to Sean Flynn at, Chile, an original member of the agreement in 2005, publicly vocalized a consideration to leave the agreement, largely due to the U.S.’s numerous and highly restrictive intellectual property clauses. Chile fears these will have significant effects on the country’s ability to provide generic medications to its citizens.

In other words, this would be a great deal for that top ‘1 per cent’ running large corporations, and potentially not so great for the other ‘99 per cent.’

Universities are central in developing medical research and technologies, and global accessibility of life-saving research depends heavily on how universities manage their intellectual property. Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) encourages universities to uphold a responsibility in providing research that meets the needs of people in both developed and developing countries. McGill’s commitment to licensing medical discoveries in ways that promote access and affordability in developing countries is very much lacking, Even as one of the top publicly-funded universities in the world. Based on the University Global Health Impact Report Card developed by UAEM, McGill ranked 30th overall of the 54 universities surveyed with an overall grade of C- – far below other Canadian universities such as McMaster University, the University of Alberta, and the University of British Columbia.

In the end, the TPP agreement will severely affect the population of the countries involved, without the input or knowledge of those populations. This is not only an infringement on the principles of a democratic state, but with 40 per cent of the world economy tied up in this agreement, economic and social consequences will be vast. While many socioeconomic changes will result from the passing of the TPP, the harm that it will cause to advancing accessible and affordable medicines for all is catastrophic. The battle to place basic health as a human right, not a luxury, will be lost with the passing of this agreement.