U.N. urged to probe U.S. trade stance on generic drugs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - AIDS groups on Tuesday accused the United States of violating the health rights of millions of poor people around the world through trade policies that make it harder for them to get life-saving drugs.

A nurse holds a glass containing a cocktail of HIV/AIDS drugs for a patient at Mercy Centre in Bangkok February 8, 2007. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

A coalition that includes Health Gap, the Foundation for AIDS Rights and the Thai Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS formally asked Anand Grover, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, to look into the matter.

The special rapporteur can respond to alleged violations by asking the concerned government to clarify its policies, reminding it of health right obligations and requesting information on any corrective action the government is taking.

The groups were to hold a press conference at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna on Tuesday.

Their ire is directed at an annual report produced by the U.S. Trade Representative’s office that ranks countries with the worst records on protecting U.S. intellectual property rights for goods ranging from CDs to medicines.

They accused the United States of using the “Special 301” report to pressure countries to give up certain public health rights they have under a World Trade Organization agreement on intellectual property rights known as TRIPS.

“Up to and including the 2009 Special 301 report, Brazil, India, Thailand and other countries were threatened with sanctions under Special 301 for taking advantage of TRIPS flexibilities, including utilizing transition periods and issuing compulsory licenses” to allow domestic firms to produce cheaper versions of drugs patented by U.S. companies, the groups said in their allegation letter to Grover.

This year’s Special 301 report again put Thailand on its “priority watch list,” one step short of its most serious designation. The country has battled with U.S. drug companies over steps it has taken in its aggressive anti-AIDS campaign.

USTR also announced a special “out-of-cycle” review of Thailand’s intellectual property rights regime, a step praised by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the U.S. drug industry’s powerful lobby group.

But in the same report, USTR reaffirmed its support for countries using their TRIPS flexibilities as embodied in an international pledge known as the Doha Declaration, which says they are not bound by global intellectual property rights from taking steps to deal with public health crises.

Sean Flynn, associate director of the American University’s Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property, accused President Barack Obama of not following through on a campaign promise to support access to low-cost generic drugs.

Obama’s campaign literature pledged “to break the stranglehold that a few big drug and insurance companies have on these life-saving drugs,” said Flynn, who is the counsel of record on the groups’ letter to the UN special rapporteur.

Editing by Eric Walsh