Indian Health Activists Protest Proposed EU Trade Deal

People affected with HIV participate in a protest rally to oppose a free trade agreement between India and European Union in New Delhi, India, April 10, 2013.
In India, health activists and people living with HIV and cancer are protesting a trade deal in the final stages of negotiation with the European Union, saying it could threaten India’s ability to provide affordable, life-saving medicines around the world. From New Delhi, Anjana Pasricha has more.

Hundreds of people living with HIV and cancer marched through the streets of New Delhi Wednesday, holding placards like "Europe, Hands Off Our Medicine" and "Stop FTA’s, Not AIDS medicines."

They say the European Union is seeking to impose tighter intellectual property protection in a free trade pact being negotiated with India. Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma will be in Brussels on April 15 to iron out differences and give a final push to the treaty.

Health activists say some provisions of the pact could stifle India’s thriving generic drug industry, whose cheaper drugs are a lifeline for millions of people with diseases like HIV and cancer across Asia and Africa.

They cite a provision which could delay generic versions from entering the market by extending the duration of drug patents. They say this will block competition from Indian drug manufacturers and push up prices. They also fear that demand for investor guarantees could adversely impact generic drug companies.

Pratibha Subramaniam is at the rally representing Lawyers Collective, which has been fighting for almost 15 years for affordable medicines for people suffering from HIV.

“Because of the presence of first-line generic anti-HIV medicines, positive people have been able to survive and we have been able to make HIV from a death sentence to a chronic manageable condition. But, now we are really scared," said Subramaniam. "We are really worried and also we apprehend that most of the newer drugs are patented and they are really very costly and we wont we able to afford them."

The rally was led by people who can vouch for the importance of generic drugs.

Vikas Ahuja, 41, contracted HIV when he was about 20 years old. At that time, anti-AIDS drugs were out of reach for most people in countries like India.

"I used to sleep everyday thinking that I wont wake up in the morning. That was the notion I went through for the next 10 years," said Ahuja. "Eventually, when my CD4 [type of white blood cell] count dropped to 34, in a normal human it is 1100 to 1200, I was taken to this ART [anti retroviral treatment] clinic where they distribute this free generics, courtesy which I am standing here today."

Indian officials have not commented on the concerns of health activists on the trade pact with the European Union, but the government has been proactive in protecting the country’s thriving generic drug industry.

Western pharmaceutical companies have been pushing for measures to strengthen intellectual property in India. Recently, India’s supreme court turned down a patent request for anti-cancer drug Glivek, produced by Swiss pharmaceutical company, Novartis, saying it was not a new drug but an amended version of a known one.

The European Union is India’s largest trading partner and a free trade pact is expected to give a major boost to business on both sides.