Unilateral American Action on Agreed Bilateral Issues: Would India Remain Unfazed?

I discussed in one of my earlier blog posts titled “Has Prime Minister Modi Conceded Ground To America On Patents Over Patients?” of October 6, 2014 that on April 30, 2014, the United States in its report on annual review of the global state of IPR protection and enforcement, named ‘Special 301 report’, classified India as a ‘priority watch list country’.

Special 301 Report and OCR – A brief Background:

According to the Office of USTR, Section 182 of the US Trade Act requires USTR to identify countries that deny adequate and effective protection of IPR or deny fair and equitable market access to US persons who rely on Intellectual Property (IP) protection. The provisions of Section 182 are commonly referred to as the “Special 301” provisions of the US Trade Act.

Those countries that have the ‘most onerous or egregious acts, policies, or practices and whose acts, policies, or practices have the greatest adverse impact (actual or potential) on relevant US products’ are to be identified as Priority Foreign Countries. In addition, USTR has created a “Priority Watch List” and a “Watch List” under Special 301 provisions. Placement of a trading partner on the Priority Watch List or Watch List indicates that particular problems exist in that country with respect to IPR protection, enforcement, or market access for persons relying on IP.

In the 2014 Special 301 Report, USTR placed India on the Priority Watch List and noted that it would conduct an Out of Cycle Review (OCR) of India focusing in particular on assessing progress made in establishing and building effective, meaningful, and constructive engagement with the Government of India on IPR issues of concern.

An OCR is a tool that USTR uses on IPR issues of concern and for heightened engagement with a trading partner to address and remedy such issues.

For the purpose of the OCR of India, USTR had requested written submissions from the public concerning information, views, acts, policies, or practices relevant to evaluating the Government of India’s engagement on IPR issues of concern, in particular those identified in the 2014 Special 301 Report.

The Deadlines for written submissions were as follows:

Friday, October 31, 2014 - Deadline for the public, except foreign governments, to submit written comments.

Friday, November 7, 2014 - Deadline for foreign governments to submit written comments.

India’s earlier response to 2014 Special 301 Report:

On this report, India had responded earlier by saying that the ‘Special 301’ process is nothing but unilateral measures taken by the US to create pressure on countries to increase IPR protection beyond the TRIPS agreement. The Government of India has always maintained that its IPR regime is fully compliant with all international laws.

The issue was raised during PM’s US visit:

According to media reports, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to America last month, had faced power packed protests against the drug patent regime in India from both the US drug industry and also the federal government.

The Indo-US joint statement addresses remedial measures:

In view of this concern, Indo-US high-level working group on IP was constituted as a part of the Trade Policy Forum (TPF), which is the principal trade dialogue body between the two countries. TPF has five focus groups: Agriculture, Investment, Innovation and Creativity, Services, and Tariff and Non-Tariff Barriers.

The recent joint statement issued after the talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama captures the essence of it as follows:

“Agreeing on the need to foster innovation in a manner that promotes economic growth and job creation, the leaders committed to establish an annual high-level Intellectual Property (IP) Working Group with appropriate decision-making and technical-level meetings as part of the TPF.”

Unilateral measures resurface within days after PM’s return from the US:

Almost immediately after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s return from the US, USTR ‘s fresh offensive with OCR against India’s IP regime, could have an adverse impact on the proposed bilateral dialogue with Washington on this issue.

However, dismissing this unilateral action of America, the Union Commerce Ministry, has reiterated the country’s stand, yet again, as follows:

“As far as we are concerned, all our laws and rules are compliant with our commitments at WTO. A country can’t judge India’s policies using its own yardsticks when there is a multilateral agreement.”

As many would know that several times in the past, India has unambiguously articulated, it may explore the available option of approaching the World Trade Organization (WTO) for the unilateral moves and actions by the US on IPR related issues, as IPR policies require to be discussed in the multilateral forum, such as WTO.

A fresh hurdle in the normalization process:

Many see the latest move of USTR with OCR as a fresh hurdle in the normalization process of a frosty trade and economic relationship between the two countries. More so, when it comes almost immediately after a clear agreement inked between Prime Minister Modi and President Obama in favor of a bilateral engagement on IPR related policies and issues. Let me hasten to add, USTR has now clarified, “The OCR will not revisit India’s designation on the 2014 Priority Watch List.”

What does US want?

The initiatives taken by the USTR, no doubt, are in conformance to the US law, as it requires to identify and prepare a list of trade barriers in the countries with whom the US has trade relations, and with a clear focus on IPR related issues.

Washington based powerful pharmaceutical industry lobby group – PhRMA, which seemingly dominates all MNC pharma associations globally, has reportedly urged the US government to continue to keep its pressure on India, in this matter. According to industry sources, PhRMA has a strong indirect presence and influence in India too.

It is pretty clear now that to resolve all IP related bilateral issues, the United States wants the Indian Patents Act to be amended as an exact replica of what the American lawmakers have enacted in their country, including evergreening of patents and no compulsory licensing unless there is a national disaster or emergency. They require it, irrespective of whatever happens as a result of lack of access to these new drugs for a vast majority of Indian patients.

Thus, it is understandable, why the Indian government is not surrendering to persistent American bullying.

A series of decisions taken by the Union government of India on both patents and drug pricing is a demonstration of its sincere endeavor to increase access to drugs, as less than 15 percent of 1.2 billion people of the country are currently covered by some sort of health insurance.

Global healthcare NGOs strongly reacted:

The Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) Access Campaign articulated, “India’s production of affordable medicines is a vital life-line for MSF’s medical humanitarian operations and millions of people in the developing countries.”

It further added, “India’s patent law and practices are favorable to public health, were put in place through a democratic legislative process, and are in line with international trade and intellectual property rules… Every country has the right to set policies that balance private business interests with public health needs.”

MSF reportedly warned Prime Minister Modi that US officials and Big Pharma would continue to try to lobby and pressurize him over India’s current patent regime and urged him, “Don’t back down on drug patents”.

“The world can’t afford to see India’s pharmacy shut down by US commercial interests,” MSF reiterated.

Under US bullying, is India developing cold feet?

In the midst of all these, an international media reported:

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi got an earful from both constituents and the US drug industry about India’s approach to drug patents during his first visit to the US last month. Three weeks later, there is evidence the government will take a considered approach to the contested issue.”

Quoting an Indian media report, the above international publication elaborated, the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) of India, has delayed a decision on whether to grant a Compulsory License (CL) for Bristol-Myers Squibb’s (BMS) leukemia drug Sprycel. DIPP has sent a letter to the Health Ministry, questioning its rationale for saying there was a “national emergency” when chronic myeloid leukemia affects only 0.001% of the population. The letter asked how much the government is spending on the drug, and pointed out that there is no indication of a growing trend in the disease.

This Indian report commented, if the DIPP had agreed to issue a CL for Sprycel on the recommendation of the Union Ministry of Health, it would have ‘cheered’ the public health activists, but would have adversely impacted Indo-US relations that the Indian Prime Minister wants to avoid for business interests.

A Superficial and baseless interpretation:

In my view, the above comments of the Indian media, which was quoted by the international publications, may be construed as not just superficial, but baseless as well.

This is because, DIPP has become cautious on the CL issue not just now, but at least over a couple years from now (please read: Health Min’s compulsory license proposal hits DIPP hurdle, DIPP seeks details on 3 cancer drugs for compulsory licensing).

This is also not the first time that DIPP has sought clarification from the Ministry of Health on this subject.

Hence, in my view, this particular issue is being unnecessarily sensationalized, which has got nothing to do with hard facts and far from being related to the PM’s visit to America.

Conclusion:

The Indian Parliament amended the Patent Act in 2005, keeping the interest of public health right at the center. The Act provides adequate safeguards, including checks on evergreening of patents and broader framework for CL. All these conform to the Doha Declaration, which categorically states “TRIPS Agreement does not and should not prevent WTO members from taking measures to protect public health”.

For similar reasons, the Indian Act does not provide for ‘evergreening’ of patents. The Supreme Court judgment on Glivec is a case in point. If the Indian patent regime is weak and not TRIPS-compliant, the aggrieved country should approach the dispute settlement body of the WTO for necessary action. Thus, it is intriguing if the US, which took India to WTO over the latter’s solar power policy, is not doing the same for pharma IP. Is it really sure that the allegation that ‘the Indian Patent Act is non-TRIPS compliant’ is a robust one?

There is no denying that innovation is the wheel of progress of any nation and needs to be rewarded and protected. However, there is an equally important need to strike the right balance between patent regimes and safeguarding public health interest. In that sense, the Indian Patents Act occupies a position of strength, not weakness.

Considering all these, unilateral American measures against India for amendment of the country’s Patents Act in sync with theirs, ultimately would prove to be foolhardy.

The high-level working group on IP constituted as a part of the bilateral Trade Policy Forum (TPF), would be the right platform to sort out glitches in this arena, keeping Indian patients’ health interests at the center, and at the same time without jeopardizing justifiable business interests of the innovator companies.

Otherwise in all probability, India would continue to hold its justifiable ground on IPR steadfastly, remaining unfazed under pressures and provocations of any kind.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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