As of December 2021, 1 in 4 people living with HIV did not have access to life-saving antiretroviral medicines.
While drug companies repeatedly tell us that patents are vital to pay for the research and development (R&D) of new medicines and health technologies, the reality is that they are raking in massive profits that far exceed the cost of research. In fact, research is often done by universities or governments and then handed off to drug companies to sell at a massive profit. As long as medicines are sold and traded as private commodities for the wealthy rather than public goods, they will remain out of reach for people who, in many cases, need them most.
Health GAP campaigns for increased access to medicines, particularly antiretroviral therapy for people living with HIV, by exposing pharma greed, promoting laws to avoid and override monopolies on medicines, and opposing harmful trade agreements.
Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, the pharmaceutical industry has prioritized making excessive profits and expanding patent monopolies over the human right to life. As activists deeply rooted in the tradition of ACT UP, which used direct action to expose pharma greed and bring down the price of HIV medicines beginning in the 1980s, we work to confront drug companies that block access by price gouging, lobbying for patent and trade policies that protect industry over people, and restricting the right of countries to use legal safeguards to protect the health of their people. In South Africa, we are working to reform intellectual property laws as part of the Fix the Patent Laws coalition.
Pharmaceutical corporations and their massive, well-funded Washington lobby exert outsize power over the U.S. Trade Representative to set new, dangerous paradigms in intellectual property monopolies and enforcement – the international rules of the road for pharmaceutical production, pricing and sales. Big pharma’s proposals often work to undermine key countries’ domestic generic drug production, especially in India, which is responsible for much of the progress made in recent years to slow the HIV pandemic.
In an increasingly interconnected world, it makes sense that the U.S. would seek to strengthen trade ties with countries across the globe. But after fifteen years of progress expanding access to affordable medicines – even during the Bush and Obama administrations, which were generally hostile to the interests of healthcare users – progress is moving too slowly and is threatened by trade policies and agreements that too often protect pharmaceutical company profits rather than saving lives.
Health GAP engages in country and regional campaigns to adopt and use internationally recognized public health flexibilities that help to avoid or override monopolies that make it harder for people to access life-saving medicines and technologies. Working with allies in India, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Indonesia, Brazil, Thailand, and elsewhere, Health GAP has supported countries in their efforts to reform patent laws to shrink or even eliminate patent monopolies where they are undermining access to affordable medicines and technologies. We have also supported countries’ efforts to issue compulsory licenses that allow generic competitors to produce medicines and dramatically lower their cost.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump repeatedly decried drug company profiteering, going as far as to say pharma was “getting away with murder.” But in his first month in office, President Trump met with drug company executives at the White House. In sharp contrast to his campaign pledge to take on the industry and lower the cost of prescription drugs, Trump announced on social media a policy that seemed designed to raise prices in other countries in order to further enrich drug companies.
In May 2018, Trump confirmed those early pronouncements with an amorphous drug pricing plan that is exactly what the drug companies want–a free shot to extract more monopoly profits from other countries. The speech reflected Trump’s one-sided, irrational expectation that foreign and U.S. drug companies will reduce prices in the U.S. as an offset to increased sales elsewhere. Of course there is no evidence this would happen, and in fact history proves they do not: domestic drug prices have increased steadily even as pharma has secured increasing global hegemony over drug pricing through aggressive trade policies. Even in October 2018, when Trump announced a set limited proposals to reign in Medicare prices on a select number of medicines administered by doctors and hospitals, he continued to rail against “foreign freeloaders.”
The Trump administration has broken its promises to lower drug prices. We must be vigilant in our fight to ensure U.S. trade policy protects people’s lives and doesn’t just increase the profit margins of big corporations.
One major battlefield in the fight to increase access to medicines was the 2016-2017 campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Activists helped transform the TPP from a done deal to dead on arrival, but additional fights for access to affordable medicines are on the near horizon. This is particularly true given that the worst aspects of monopoly protections for medicines are replicated – in fact increased – in the renegotiated NAFTA–with harmful implications for access for people in the U.S., as well. We must take the lessons learned from that grassroots movement against the TPP and build on them to empower activists so that any new attempts to feed corporate greed and build walls between people and life-saving medicines are crushed before they get off the ground.