Trade Agreements and Health
New Trends and Challenges for Access to Medicines
Gaps in innovation and access to medicines and treatments continue to remain one of the critical challenges for humanity in the twenty-first century. While there have been unprecedented scientific advances that have extended human longevity during the twentieth century, millions are still locked out of accessing life-saving drugs and medicines. With rapidly rising prices of medicines and treatments across the world, the issue affects not only poor people and poor countries, but also people in high-income countries.
This Lecture will argue that such a situation arises from a particular model of financing for biomedical innovation. The Lecture will further argue that new trends in regional trade and investment agreements can have critical consequences for access to medicines and other national health priorities for many developing countries. What has health got to do with trade agreements? Trade agreements of the twentieth century have mostly been about barriers such as tariffs and quotas on import and export of goods. Today’s trade agreements are more about investments than trade. They contain extensive provisions that regulate the market environment for investors and exporters such as state-owned enterprises, public procurement, dispute settlement between investors and the state, food safety, intellectual property rights, and much more. Such rules can constrain the scope of action that national governments have in pursuing respective national priorities. The most contested issue in this connection relates to the intellectual property provisions that strengthen and lengthen patents, giving pharmaceutical corporations new monopoly rights to charge high prices. Such measures delay generic competition in pharmaceutical markets and help maintain monopoly pricing, adding to the pressure of escalating prices. Globally, provisions in new trade agreements could reduce the ability of governments to address some of the most urgent public health priorities of the day.
For Bangladesh, the challenges that the emerging scenario poses are both specific and pressing. They will shape the potential opportunities and constraints not only in the context of expanding access to medicines for the population, but also with respect to the development of the pharmaceutical industry, one of the most dynamic sectors of the Bangladesh economy.