March 13, 2006

Prompted by reports of a pending free trade agreement (FTA) between Malaysia and the U.S., two Malaysia-based HIV/AIDS awareness groups — the Malaysian Treatment Access and Advocacy Group and the PT Foundation — have submitted an open letter to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, expressing concern that an FTA would render many life-saving HIV/AIDS medications largely unaffordable. The letter alleges that the creation of an FTA would cause more antiretroviral (ARV) medicines in the country to come under patent, lessening the availability of generics.

"We are very worried about news reports on FTA negotiations with the USA," states the letter. "We do not know what is being proposed in the Malaysia-U.S. FTA, but based on previous U.S. FTAs … there are a number of common provisions which are very alarming. We believe the US will demand that Malaysia also agree to similar provisions … When a medicine is patented, it means there is a monopoly and so no other manufacturers can make that medicine. That means that the patent owner can charge as much as it likes because there is no competition."

The letter commends the Malaysian government's 2003 decision to import generic ARVs from India — a move that resulted in an 81 percent drop in treatment costs that year, from $315 to $58. It worries, however, that with more patented ARVs and fewer generic options, the more than 10,000 people living with AIDS in the country would be unable to purchase the drugs they require.

"We make a strong plea to Datuk Seri and the whole Malaysian government to reassure us that public health will always be a top priority, and that FTAs with Malaysia will not contain anything that goes against access to affordable medicines," concludes the letter. "We urge [the prime minister] to hold consultations so that … all Malaysians can learn more about FTAs that will be negotiated and how they will have an impact on … access to affordable medicines."