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EU-India free trade agreement likely to hit generics production

July 8, 2010

Over 50 percent of the demand for medicine in developing countries is covered by generics. Most of them are produced in India. A planned free trade agreement between the EU and India is likely to hinder their production.

India produces relatively cheap generic drugs for treating AIDS and other diseases
India produces relatively cheap generic drugs for treating AIDS and other diseasesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Asha is 40 years old but she looks older. She has known that she is HIV-positive for six years. But she does not know when she was infected by her husband. He, in turn, was infected by a prostitute. He died some time ago. Since then, his widow has been shunned, even by her own family.

"As an Indian woman I am subject to a lot of discrimination from my relatives who have treated me badly," says Asha. "There have been lots of problems but in the end they are also the ones who have supported me, my mother and my brother. That's the only reason I am still alive today."

An HIV positive sex worker observes a blood test at a free clinic in Kolkata
An HIV positive sex worker observes a blood test at a free clinic in KolkataImage: AP

Another reason is the medicine she has been taking for years. Indian-made generics have helped Asha and millions of other AIDS patients stay alive. Asha is grateful: "If I didn't take medicine, I wouldn't survive – I would die. The virus cannot be killed. The medicine only helps to strengthen my immune system."

Depending on Indian-made generics

80 percent of the antiretroviral drugs that Doctors Without Borders administers to AIDS patients are Indian-made generics. India has tried to strike a balance between the needs of its patients and the interests of the pharmaceutical companies but Indian patent law has also become stricter to meet WTO regulations over the past decade.

As part of a free trade agreement with India, the EU wants to place even more restrictions on the production of generics, which have helped millions to survive across the world in recent decades. The EU also intends to extend the patents of the original, much more expensive, manufacturers. Leena Menghaney from Doctors Without Borders says this would be a disaster.

AIDS is still a taboo subject in India
AIDS is still a taboo subject in IndiaImage: AP

"What will happen is that major drugs, essential drugs will go out of production. When you have generic production stopping what happens is that you have just one producer in the market and that producer has a monopoly. And that means extremely high prices."

Drug prices expected to shoot up

It costs about 12,000 US dollars a year to keep one AIDS patient alive with the original drugs. But Indian-made generics cost 80 US dollars per patient.

Free trade negotiations between the EU and India are currently underway. The agreement is supposed to be reached by the fall. Leena Menghaney urges the Indian government to protect generic drugs production. "We know that what is at stake is lives of patients across the developing world. Basically that will mean the end of Indian generics and a lot of us, including ourselves personally, we are dependent on medicines produced in India, we cannot afford the prices."

Asha, meanwhile, says that she would not mind so much if she did not have access to the drugs to keep her alive. But she says it would be terrible for her 13-year-old son who is also HIV-positive but has not told his school or friends because of the stigma attached to having AIDS in India.

Author: Ilka Steinhausen / act
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein