GAO Report Highlights How U.S. Policy Undermines Public Health

October 30, 2007
For Immediate Release
For More Information, contact: Robert Weissman, Essential Action, (202) 387-8030

In response to a request from Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Henry Waxman, the Government Accountability Office today has issued a report on U.S. trade policy and access to medicines.

The GAO report highlights in some detail the many ways that the Bush administration has violated the Doha provision in the 2002 Trade Promotion Authority legislation. The Act designated respecting the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health as a principal negotiating objective related to intellectual property.

“It is time for the Bush administration to stop defending Big Pharma’s interests in extended patent monopolies, at the expense of public health,” says Robert Weissman, director of Essential Action, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that aims to expand access to essential medicines. “The life-and-death consequences are just too high.”

“A new policy should have advancing public health, rather protecting large corporate contributors, as its starting point,” said Weissman. “From there, it’s easy to see what to do: promote generic competition — including but not limited for the AIDS drugs that the President’s own AIDS program is purchasing — stop pushing for higher patent and drug monopoly standards in developing countries, and explore new ways to promote both innovation and affordability.”

A more detailed statement from Weissman follows:

The Doha Declaration affirms “that the [World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS)] Agreement can and should be interpreted and implemented in a manner supportive of WTO members’ right to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all.” It specifies that “each member has the
right to grant compulsory licenses and the freedom to determine the grounds upon which such licenses are granted.”

Yet as the GAO study reiterates, the Bush administration has negotiated bilateral and regional trade agreements that undermine these rights. When Thailand and Brazil have sought to exercise these rights, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has threatened them with sanctions. As GAO reports, the administration justifies this behavior through bad-faith interpretations of agreements that clearly intend to provide public health guarantees.

To state the proposition again, the Doha Declaration states: “Can and should be interpreted and implemented in a manner supportive of WTO members’ right to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all.” The meaning of this language is plain to everyone except those who willfully seek to distort its content.

The real-life consequence of the administration’s actions has been to deny people access to lifesaving and other essential medicines. Protecting Big Pharma’s patent monopolies and ability to price gouge consumers may seem like little more than payback for generous donations, but that’s not how it seems from hospital beds and patients’ homes around the world. There, the price of medicines is often a life-and-death matter.

Although the Doha Declaration is quite specific, GAO recommends that Congress should clarify what it means by respecting the Doha Declaration. The best way to do that is through support of the Brown/Allen resolution, S.Res. 241/H.Res 525. The resolution states that U.S. policy should be to: Honor Doha Declaration commitments; Not put
countries on the 301 list for exercising TRIPS flexibilities; Not negotiate TRIPS-plus provisions in trade deals; and Support new medical R&D norms that seek to provide a sustainable basis for a needs-driven essential health agenda.

GAO chose to limit the scope its report. There are other ways in which the executive branch is working to undermine the promise of the Doha Declaration, beyond what is included in the report. Congress should investigate and end these practices. They include:

• Misguided and poor quality technical assistance that encourages developing countries to overprotect pharmaceutical patent monopolies (this is mentioned in an appendix to the GAO report, but merits much closer scrutiny);

• Pressure on the World Health Organization (WHO) — including efforts to suppress important reports — not to advise countries on how to make medicines affordable; and

• Improper interference in the WHO Intergovernmental Working Group on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property negotiating process, including by pressuring country negotiators not to support positions embodying Doha Declaration objectives.