Leading article: Small print that could cost millions of lives

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The Independent Online

Today The Independent reports from the home of four-year old Stella, who is growing up in a region of Uganda that was notorious for its high rates of HIV/Aids. So far, hers is a good-news story, but it could become a bad-news story almost overnight – and not just for her, but for her family, her country and for everyone who is similarly afflicted.

Stella is alive today, thanks to free anti-retroviral medicines. She and her mother are among the 4 million people in the developing world over the past nine years who have benefited from drugs produced cheaply in India. Over that time, the average annual cost of treatment has fallen to a fraction of what it used to be. India is by far the largest supplier of anti-retrovirals, selling more than 80 per cent of those bought by charities for Africa.

A virtuous circle is in operation here, where the lower costs of generic drugs and Indian labour allow crucial medicine to be supplied cheaply, or free, to those who need them. There is a real danger, however, that this arrangement could soon come to an abrupt end, and with it the possibility for any but the rich few to receive the life-saving drugs they need. Trade talks that resume between the European Union and India next week could have precisely that result.

Pharmaceutical companies have been lobbying for a clause on "data exclusivity" that would have the effect of preventing Indian producers from registering copies of foreign drugs, including those outside the existing patent system. This would not only raise costs exponentially, but delay the availability of newer generic drugs for children by up to 15 years. These are vital, as people's resistance to older drugs grows.

EU representatives deny that a trade agreement would have the effect of blocking the supply of affordable medicine to the developing world. But this is precisely what charities – including Médecins Sans Frontières – fear. The UK International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has hinted that he will put in a word with the EU Trade Commissioner. But this is no time for quiet diplomatic niceties. When millions of lives are at stake, what is needed is a more robust approach.