As a member of Congress and a physician, I am very proud of the enormous generosity of the American people. Through their engagement, and their tax dollars, Americans help millions of disadvantaged people around the world by providing access to medical care and essential drugs.
Unfortunately, we are also currently negotiating sweeping international trade agreements that may curtail our ability to continue helping the poorest of the poor.
Working as a doctor in sub-Saharan Africa during the 1980s, I witnessed the AIDS epidemic devastate entire communities. I saw adults die far too young and watched women pass HIV to their newborns without a cure or a compressive response. Amazingly, assuring an AIDS-free generation is not only within reach today; it is, in fact, an official policy goal of the U.S. government. And while the global progress of HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention is impressive, it is just one of many global disease control efforts that the United States has spearheaded and pursued.
With America’s record of global health leadership in mind, I am troubled by what may happen to access to medicines for the poor around the world as a result of our new trade agreements.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is being negotiated right now. It includes 10 countries of the Pacific Rim, including developing countries such as Peru, Malaysia and Vietnam. If the TPP agreement is done right, it will encourage and support American exports and create needed jobs in the United States. The critical intellectual property provisions of the pact should protect inventors and developers of breakthrough innovations, but they cannot be so restrictive that they cost millions of lives in less developed countries.
At the beginning of TPP negotiations two years ago, for reasons that are unclear, the U.S. asked the other 10 countries to accept new and very rigid intellectual property measures that would greatly limit availability of the affordable generic medicines that the success of U.S.-supported global health programs require. For example, more than 98 percent of HIV/AIDS medicines used to fight AIDS in Africa are generics, mostly made in Asia.
The United States is currently party to many international agreements that include strong intellectual property protections. These agreements protect innovation, including 20-year patents on new drugs, but they also allow enough flexibility for poorer countries to respond to public health needs with accessible, low-cost drugs. We worked hard to get these rules in place and they are working well.
But the U.S.’ current TPP proposal on medicines upends the present well-structured balance by extending monopoly protections much further. It would force people in developing countries to wait longer for affordable medicines, if they can access them at all. It would extend patents beyond the current 20-year norm and block national regulators from using existing clinical trial data to approve the production of generic or “bio-similar” drugs.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.