India has promised not to link a proposed trade deal with the European Union with limiting its production of generic HIV/AIDS drugs, the United Nations said on Thursday, giving hope to millions of infected patients but underlining the hurdles for the controversial pact.
The EU and India began negotiations in 2007 on a free-trade agreement which could generate two-way trade annually worth about USD 134 billion. But campaigners, including the UN, have voiced concerns over how it could block India's ability to produce anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs and prevent the world's poor from accessing cheaper treatment.
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"The Government of India reaffirms its full commitment to ensure that quality generic medicines, including anti-retroviral drugs, are seamlessly available, and to make them available to all countries," India's Commerce Minister Anand Sharma was quoted as saying in a statement issued by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
"India will also use the flexibilities allowed under (the copyright pact) TRIPS, including the use of compulsory licensing, to ensure that people living with HIV have access to all life-saving medicines."
Sharma made the comments in a meeting with UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe, who on Tuesday told Reuters in an interview that millions of people around the world would die if the deal blocked India from producing generic medicines.
An estimated 15 million people are eligible for ARVs in low-and middle-income countries, yet currently only about 6.6 million people have access to treatment. India's pharmaceutical industry produces about 86 % of the first-line cheap generic drugs, most of whom live in Africa.
Generic ARVs cost about USD 137 per person per year, a fraction of the price of patented ARVs used to treat the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, and are sold by western pharmaceutical firms, say experts.
Two-way trade between India and its biggest trading partner, the EU -- touched USD 92.2 billion in 2009 in goods and services, but the figure could immediately rise to USD 134 billion (100 billion euros) a year and exceed USD 237 billion by 2015 if the free trade agreement goes through.
One of the key disagreements has been between western drug makers, who want greater protection of intellectual property rights, and companies, including those in India, which make cheaper copies -- a life-line for patients who cannot afford the more expensive medicines.
The talks on the pact have run into differences, such as over EU efforts to link it with sensitive topics such as India's performance on climate change and reducing child labour, and over greater market access.
Complications have also arisen over the possibility of the proposed pact leading to easier immigration rules for Indians seeking to find work in Europe, particularly Britain which has capped immigration.
The current EU-India trade deal includes proposals that could delay or restrict competition from generic medicines by extending patent terms, requiring data exclusivity and tightening border enforcement rules.
Such moves could drive up prices for India's anti-retroviral treatments, limit dosage options and delay access to newer and better drugs, said a UN report in September last year.
Sidibe welcomed the promise made by India, adding emerging economies had a key role to play in stemming the disease which was first detected three decades ago.
"India, together with Brazil, South Africa, China and Russia, must forge an alliance with other high-income countries to ensure that no single person in the world dies because they could not afford to buy life-saving medicines or health care," said Sidibe in a statement.