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Act makes it possible to seize and destroy even legitimately produced generic drugs exported from India to poor countries
It was a triumphant moment for public health campaigners when members of the European Parliament voted against the Anti- Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) on July 4. ACTA is a plurilateral pact, designed to protect against counterfeiting of products, including medicines.
ACTA, primarily drafted and secretly negotiated by the US, was signed on October 1, last year by eight countries, including Australia, Canada and the United States. To get it ratified in the European Union, its executive body, the European Commission, put the draft in the European Parliament for its approval, where it got the thumbs down.
The Act's dismissal was glad tidings for humanitarian and medical organisations that have been opposing it because it gives powers to enforcement agencies like the customs departments to seize products that are counterfeit or infringe Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) during transit or in the importing country.
These organisations have been objecting to the definition of “counterfeit” in the Act. “It is so loosely drafted that even legitimately produced generic medicines could be termed as counterfeit and seized and detained, hindering access for people who rely on these medicines to survive,” said Aziz ur Rehman, IP advisor to Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), an international medical humanitarian organisation.
Act also targets non-profits
ACTA is so designed that a mere complaint by patent holding companies that a particular consignment is counterfeit is enough for the customs department of a country to seize and destroy the medicines. The European Parliament's ruling is particularly important for India because it is seen as the drug pharmacy of the developing world; it exports generic medicines to many developing countries. “The way ACTA is written, it gives an unfair advantage to patented medicines, and restricted access to affordable generic medicines to the detriment of patients and treatment providers,” added Rehman.
The stringent provision in ACTA would have also targeted third parties, including non-governmental organisations, distributing these generic medicines to people in developing countries where patents have not been granted to drugs.
Since 2008, many consignments of standard generic drugs which were legitimately produced in India were seized at the ports of Paris and Netherlands on the complaints by the patent-holder companies which claimed the products were counterfeit.
European Commission's next move
However, the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, which has been pushing for ACTA, is unperturbed by the vote. “We will consult with our international partners on how to move forward with the issue,” said Karel de Gucht , EU trade commissioner. European Commission became signatory to ACTA this January.
Eight countries and 22 members states of the EU have signed ACTA. But It is not legally binding yet because it would require parliaments of at least six signatories to ratify it. Except for the US, none of the parliamets of negotating nations have ratified it. EU could have become the second member but its parliament turned down the proposal.