India's low-cost generic drug industry faces threats from a proposed 16-nation Asian trade bloc, according to civil society groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP, underway in Perth, Australia, is broadly supported by the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but other nations in the talks are already suggesting India is reluctant to change protectionist policies.
India's Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman earlier this week accused other negotiators of "sledging"--a cricket term denoting trash talk--after talk surfaced from some countries that India was “obstructionist” on drug policies and other areas, according to the Hindu Business Line newspaper.
The diverse group of countries, which includes China, Australia, South Korea and Japan as well as Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam is an effort to join the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, with the 6 countries the bloc already has individual trade pacts with.
A key focus are calls for India and other countries to go beyond TRIPS, or the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, otherwise known as the TRIPS Agreement under the World Trade Organization, and enforce tougher data exclusivity and patent rules.
India already found itself in hot water earlier this year with domestic drug manufacturers after reports surfaced it would not approve new compulsory licenses for patented drugs. The commerce ministry denied the reports.
The stakes for India and China in the pact are high because both billion-plus population countries are outside a U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact finalized late last year among a dozen Pacific Rim nations. The TPP however has not been passed and faces possible defeat or changes in the U.S. as the lead candidates for president this year, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, oppose many provisions.
To add fuel to the fire, DNA India reports that documents leaked during the talks would allegedly crimp generic medicine laws regionally and hit low-cost access.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors without Borders, said in the case of India, the country supplies two-thirds of all drugs it buys to treat HIV, TB and malaria and that costs would rise under the RCEP.