The impact of trade agreements on public health

Existing trade agreements will be crucial to the distribution of a cure for COVID-19, writes Shazma Gaffoor.

Existing trade agreements will be crucial to the distribution of a cure for COVID-19, writes Shazma Gaffoor.

With the world in a flurry to create a COVID-19 vaccine, global research continues with the growing number of infections world-wide. The question then arises, who would receive access once an effective vaccine becomes available?

There is potential that vaccine distribution could be influenced by the current trade agreements, which has not always been clear-cut to navigate. Dr Deborah Gleeson, a senior lecturer from the school of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University has co-authored an introductory book on how to navigate between trade agreements and the public health sphere with Professor Ronald Labonté from the School of Public Health and Epidemiology, University of Ottawa.

“When I first started doing work in the discipline there was no introductory level book to provide me with the information that I needed,” says Dr Gleeson. “I had to do a lot of reading to understand what was required. I really wanted to write this book for people like me, to give them a starting point to the subject.”

The book, ‘Trade Agreements and Public Health’, published by Springer Nature looks at health issues such as access to medicine and vaccines. It explores the implications of trade agreements for unhealthy commodities like tobacco and alcohol, as well as for employment and the environment.

“Trade and investment agreements are too important to just leave to trade negotiators and lawyers,” says Professor Labonté. “This book explains why these agreements are important to the public’s health. It upgrades public health practitioners’ trade, investment, and political economy intelligence in an easy to digest read, enabling them to engage convincingly and effectively with those who still might think that the trade show is theirs alone.”

Dr Gleeson says that the World Trade Organization (WTO) mandates 20-year patents on new medicines produced. This means regardless of demand for a particular drug globally, or even in the event of a global emergency like COVID, only the company holding the patent can produce the drug.

“A good example is the drug remdesivir, which is one of the treatments available for COVID-19,” says Dr Gleeson. “It’s made by a US company called Gilead Sciences which is selling it for about $3300 AUD for a five-day course of treatment. Such a high cost means developing countries are priced out of access.”

Gilead Sciences then came to an arrangement with an Indian company called Cipla to make a generic version of the drug for around $90 AUD on the condition that it is sold exclusively in specific developing countries.

“The reason companies can operate like this is because of the rules in trade agreements. So we really have to think about the effects of these rules and whether they are helping us meet our health goals globally,” says Dr Gleeson. “My hope is that health professionals who read our book are informed on the health policy implications of trade agreements, and able to influence them when needed.”