As the Obama administration praises the benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), backlash continues to grow against the deal. WikiLeaks has just published another section of the secret text — this one about public healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry. Newly revealed details of the draft show the TPP would give major pharmaceutical companies more power over public access to medicine and weaken public healthcare programs. The leaked draft also suggests the TPP would prevent Congress from passing reforms to lower drug costs. One of the practices that would be allowed is known as "evergreening." It lets drug companies extend the life of a patent by slightly modifying their product and then getting a new patent. We speak to Peter Maybarduk of Public Citizen and John Sifton of Human Rights Watch about their concerns.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: House Republicans are set to push for a vote as soon as Friday on approving a measure to give President Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. The secretive TPP deal involves 12 countries and nearly 40 percent of the global economy. On Wednesday, WikiLeaks released a leaked draft of another chapter of the secret negotiating text, this time the TPP’s so-called Healthcare Annex. Newly revealed details of the draft show the TPP would give major pharmaceutical companies more power over public access to medicine and weaken public healthcare programs. The leaked draft also suggests the TPP would prevent Congress from passing reforms to lower drug costs. One of the practices that would be allowed is known as "evergreening." It lets drug companies extend the life of a patent by slightly modifying their product and then getting a new patent. This is a video explaining the practice, produced by Doctors Without Borders.
NARRATOR: Evergreening. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But evergreening is what drug companies do when they want to increase their profits. And it leaves people in developing countries without the medicines they need. Here’s how. A drug company develops a new drug and is rewarded with a patent. The patent stops other producers making the medicine for 20 years. So the drug company can charge very high prices without anyone else undercutting them—for 20 years. When the patent ends, other producers can come in and compete with each other, and bingo, the prices come tumbling down. So the medicines become affordable for everyone. But the drug companies want more profits, so they make a tiny little change to their drugs and ask for another 20-year patent.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests in Washington, D.C. Peter Maybarduk is director of Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program. And John Sifton is advocacy director with Human Rights Watch. Today he’s hosting a briefing at the National Press Club on human rights and humanitarian concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, along with Oxfam America and the Council on Global Equality.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Peter, let’s begin with you on this issue of drugs. Talk about the TPP, and, for those who have never heard of it, explain its significance, and particularly as it relates to global access to drugs.
PETER MAYBARDUK: Sure. It’s great to be with you. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an ongoing trade negotiation—been going for about five years now—among 12 countries, including developing countries like Vietnam, Peru, Malaysia, as well as the United States. And in this agreement, the U.S. trade representative and the Obama administration put forward a number of proposals that have nothing to do with trade. There are about 30 chapters. Only a few have leaked; the rest is negotiated in secret. And among the many harmful proposals that have been made by big business are demands to transform other countries’ rules with regard to medical patents and many rules affecting people’s access to affordable medicines.
We’re very concerned that the TPP would lead to preventable suffering and death in these countries where people rely on access to generics. There are many provisions in the TPP that would expand the pharmaceutical industry’s monopoly power. We’re also concerned about rules in this latest leak that potentially have implications for Medicare and for U.S. programming, and most particularly constraining our ability to make some of the healthcare reforms that the Obama administration has pledged to reduce healthcare costs for Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re just learning this now, because WikiLeaks has released the chapter on these issues?
PETER MAYBARDUK: Well, this annex, which is ironically an annex to a chapter called "Transparency," is the latest in a series of leaks that have been published that give us more particular idea of exactly what rules are being negotiated. The details—the details matter. You can’t get into the negotiations. We do our best to follow by talking to contacts that we know, but due to the secrecy, it’s really only through leaks that we’re available to evaluate the particular proposals and assess their impact. These are all rules that would otherwise be debated in our congresses and parliaments out in the open, rules that include many gifts to big business. And so it’s very concerning that we have to rely on someone taking the tremendous risk of leaking a document in order to have a real public debate about the issues.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the possible justification for not revealing what is in the TPP? President Obama repeatedly says, "Trust me." He says, you know, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, they’re getting it wrong. But we are not able to see. The senators can’t even see, unless they go into a room, what is in this deal?
PETER MAYBARDUK: Yeah, well, the U.S. trade representative has come out and as much as said that we can’t tell you what’s in the agreement because it would create political complications for the negotiation, which is effectively the same thing as saying if people saw what’s in it, they wouldn’t like it, and we wouldn’t be able to pass the deal.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Peter, I want to ask you about what you mentioned earlier about the possible impact of the TPP deal, from what has been revealed, on Medicare here in the U.S. The New York Times yesterday, Wednesday, cited officials at the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office saying rules in the TPP would have no impact on the U.S., because Medicare and Medicaid already adhere to them. Could you comment on that? Of course, they didn’t officially comment on the leaked draft, but these were comments that they disclosed to The New York Times.
PETER MAYBARDUK: Well, the administration makes that assertion. But as I say, the details matter. And if you read the leaked text and compare it to Medicare regulations, we’re quite concerned that it gives pharmaceutical companies opportunities to say, "Well, we have broader rights under the TPP than we have under Medicare regulations. We want to be listed in the formularies if we show any therapeutic value, we want to have opportunities to comment at all meaningful points according to our own definitions." And we’re concerned that that could mean potentially that pharmaceutical companies might even be able to bolster a claim in these secret investor-state tribunals, that are much more friendly to investor rules, in order to make their arguments about interpretation of the particular terms. So we’re concerned that there are potential consequences for Medicare A and B today, if pharmaceutical company lawyers and lobbyists exploit what they might now see as their rights if this agreement is signed. But we’re also concerned about what happens to Medicare Part D in the future.
The president’s budget includes a proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug costs, something that 75 or 80 percent of Americans support broadly across party lines, could save a tremendous amount of money if it’s implemented with a national formulary. And implementing a national formulary under these rules that have just leaked yesterday would be difficult, would be expensive, subject to a great deal of challenge. We know this, in part, specifically because the Veterans Administration, for example, which is considered a model for procurement practices, has been specifically excluded from the annex, we think, because it’s known that these rules would make it difficult for the VA to operate, similarly would make it difficult for us to negotiate drug prices the way we need to.
AMY GOODMAN: John Sifton, you’re holding a news conference today with other human rights groups. Can you expand on—I mean, health rights are also a human right, but go further and talk about your overall human rights concerns with the TPP.
JOHN SIFTON: Well, there are issues both within the agreement with respect to the health issues, but also labor rights issues. And then there are issues that are larger, on the geopolitical level. The simple fact is, this agreement rewards several countries which have atrocious human rights records. One of them is Vietnam, a one-party, undemocratic state ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam, no elections, no freedom of speech. This is a country which lacks of dissidence for criticizing the government, voicing their own issues. So, that’s one trading partner.
Another, Brunei. The sultan of Brunei wants to impose Sharia law, which would result in adulterers being stoned to death, thieves having their hands cut off, homosexuals whipped. This is a country which is also nondemocratic, ruled by fiat, by a sultan who inherited his power through birth.
Then you have countries like Malaysia, which although emerging democracies have serious problems with freedom of expression and rights of lesbian, gay, transgender people. Singapore, the city-state next to Malaysia, also has serious problems with labor rights and freedom of expression.
All these countries would be rewarded by the United States. We’d like to see the United States use the agreement as leverage to compel these countries to improve their human rights records. And yet, over the last four or five years, that hasn’t really happened. A couple of the countries have made baby steps. Vietnam has done a few minor things. But by and large, no big agreements. Malaysia, in fact, its human rights record has gotten worse.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, this is President Obama speaking last month about how the TPP would improve worker conditions in Vietnam as well as here in the United States.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, when you look at a country like Vietnam, under this agreement, Vietnam would actually for the first time have to raise its labor standards. It would have to set a minimum wage. It would have to pass safe workplace laws to protect its workers. It would even have to protect workers’ freedom to form unions for the very first time. That would make a difference. That helps to level the playing field. And it would be good for the workers in Vietnam, even as it helps make sure that they’re not undercutting competition here in the United States. So that’s progress.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: John Sifton, that was President Obama speaking. Could you comment on what he said about the likelihood of worker conditions improving as a consequence of the TPP?
JOHN SIFTON: Well, look, we give credit to the administration for pushing along a good labor chapter that would have provisions that would do some of the things that President Obama said. Problem is, all that would be on paper. The key issue here is: Would those provisions be enforceable? Would Vietnamese workers be able to actually compel the government of Vietnam to make those supposed paper reforms a reality? And that’s where the Obama administration has been very disingenuous. They suggest the labor chapter is enforceable. What they mean is that if Vietnam fails to meet the standards, a nonexistent Vietnamese union would bring a claim in a nonexistent tribunal to compel Vietnam to improve its rights? No. The only possibility is that an outside group, maybe an international labor federation, could compel another country, like the United States, to bring a complaint against Vietnam about its labor practices in the abstract, and maybe, after many years of tribunal litigation, that would result in some kind of penalty being imposed on Vietnam. That’s not enforceability. That’s merely a process which might potentially impact Vietnam’s reform process on the grand scale. There is nothing like the rights that investors have to compel governments to change their rules. And that, at the end of the day, is what’s wrong with the TPP. It creates rights for companies and investors, but it doesn’t create new rights for workers or civil society. It basically gives corporations more rights than people.
AMY GOODMAN: So, some are saying even if you can’t negotiate these things after the TPP, you can use the TPP to change things as you negotiate it. Some openly gay lawmakers have called for halting TPP negotiations with Malaysia and Brunei because of their laws targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. But Colorado Congressmember Jared Polis, who’s openly gay, has called on the Obama administration to use the trade agreement to push for reform. He wrote a letter earlier this year saying, quote, "As negotiations over the TPP proceed, I hope you will seize the occasion by expressing to the governments of Brunei and Malaysia in no uncertain terms that their violations of basic human rights must end." John Sifton, if you could respond to that, using the negotiations to change these countries? But also, then, the two of you disagree over what should be done with TPP: John, you’re with the reform TPP crowd, and, Peter, you’re with the stop it, end it. And I’d like to hear your views on this. John?
JOHN SIFTON: Well, first off, let me say, the problem with the idea of compelling the government of Malaysia and Vietnam to improve through the negotiation process is that that’s already been going on. For four or five years, the United States has been pushing these reform agendas, and these countries have not shown any willingness to make meaningful steps. So the real question for the administration is: How is having fast-track authority going to make it any better? At the end of the day, it’s our position that if the United States—if the administration is compelled to reach certain benchmarks on human rights, not just labor rights, but other human rights—political prisoners in Vietnam, LGBT issues in Malaysia—if they’re compelled by law to actually meet those benchmarks as part of the agreement to allow fast-track authority or allow the government to present the TPP back once it’s finalized, then it will be a necessity. These countries will have to reform; otherwise, they can’t be part of the agreement. And that would be an incentive that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
So, essentially, what we’re saying is, yeah, the TPP could be used for leverage, but you have to actually use it for leverage. And if you don’t, it’s going to be a huge disappointment. And when you actually come back with the negotiated agreement, then you’re going to see human rights groups and others saying, "No, don’t vote for this agreement. We’re against it." But for now, our position is, yes, let’s compel the administration to write this agreement in a way that actually protects human rights, that actually promotes human rights, that actually abandons the ridiculous, unconscionable provisions on intellectual property that will lead to higher drug costs. If you make those changes and then go out and negotiate, and it actually compels Vietnam to improve its records, great. If you can’t do it, though, you’re going to be out of luck when you bring this agreement back to Congress when it’s done.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Maybarduk, you’re with the stop TPP crowd, not reform it, as John is. Why?
PETER MAYBARDUK: Well, there’s no such thing as a good TPP. You know, there have been some very brave negotiators from some of the developing countries in the negotiation who have been standing up to some of the most powerful industries on Earth, in defense of their countries’ various public interests, including health. But at the end of the day, U.S.—well, the multinational corporations involved aren’t going to accept a text that reduces their rights. And so we’re not going to see a TPP that has positive effects for society the way many of us would. The predicted benefits and gains in terms of trade flows are very small. The predicted costs are very large. So I don’t know why Congress would want to cede its constitutional authority to the executive, to the president, giving the president fast-track authority to ram a deal through Congress on an up-or-down vote without possibility for amendment, when the whole thing has been negotiated in secret all this time. As I say, only a few chapters have leaked. That, of course, is unofficial. What’s in the other 25-plus chapters of the agreement that we don’t about? What unfortunate surprises that could have real consequences for human beings? So, we invite your viewers to go to StopFastTrack.com, and your listeners, and to call their member of Congress today, ahead of this very close and very important vote on fast-track trade promotion authority. Say no to fast track.
JOHN SIFTON: And I’d say, look, we don’t disagree at the end of the day about these issues, because the substantive underlying issues are the same. If people want to call their member of Congress and tell them, "I’m uncomfortable with this agreement," they should do that. And, look, we work on Syria, we work on North Korea. We have to be optimistic about the idea, in theory, the Obama administration could do better. If Peter is right and they can’t, and there’s no such thing as a good TPP, then so be it. Then the time will come when it’s time to oppose it. So I don’t think there’s a disagreement here. And, yes, your listeners should go call their congresspeople today. The vote is tomorrow.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Peter, before we conclude, could you just explain specifically what you think the impact of this deal would be on drugs that are used over the long term—for instance, cancer or HIV drugs?
PETER MAYBARDUK: Certainly. Well, there’s a combination of provisions in the intellectual property chapter, enforceable, potentially, through the investment chapter, affected in terms of negotiation powers in this leak that just came out yesterday published by WikiLeaks, that show us that the generic competition, the affordable medicines on which people around the world in many TPP countries depend would be blocked through the expanding monopoly powers of the industry under this agreement. That includes the patent evergreening rules that you mentioned in your run-up. But, you know, for example, if we look at cancer, there’s a rule proposed that was tucked in through a massive lobbying effort by the pharmaceutical industry, tucked into Obamacare, for 12-year automatic monopolies on biologics, which include a great many cancer drugs. Eleven of 12 cancer treatments approved recently by the FDA cost more than $100,000. That’s a leading driver of bankruptcy for American families and leads to devastating consequences—routinely, to death for people in developing countries. So if competition is blocked for a long period of time, governments aren’t going to even be able to offer some of these treatments to their citizens, and people will suffer.
JOHN SIFTON: And it’s madness on the issue of antivirals for HIV/AIDS. It’s amazing that one part of this government, PEPFAR, which is the president’s agenda for combating HIV/AIDS worldwide, they’ll see higher costs to their budget as they try to help countries fight HIV/AIDS, because antivirals, second-stage antivirals, the kind you have to use once the initial ones wear off after a certain number of years of use, are going to be more expensive. Not to mention that all these groups, these humanitarian groups on the ground, are obliged to use subpar generic antivirals, even though there are better drugs that are coming on market, simply because of this expansion in the patent protections. It’s really unconscionable.
AMY GOODMAN: John Sifton, we want to thank you very much for being with us. I know you have to run off to your news conference over at the—you’re holding it at the National Press Club. John Sifton is with Human Rights Watch, and together with Oxfam America, as well as other groups, like the Council on Global Equality, they will be speaking out against TPP. And thank you very much to Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program.
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