The Guatemalan Congress's repeal of a law that severely restricts people's access to affordable essential medicines is a positive step forward.
The international humanitarian medical aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said that the government of Guatemala should now take advantage of this decision to ensure treatment for greater numbers of Guatemalans living with HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.
But MSF also warned that this step forward could be undermined and reversed by similar provisions included in the recently signed United States-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
In 2003, the Guatemalan government modified its national intellectual property law with Decree 9-2003, which provided five years of "data exclusivity" on drugs registered for use in the country. This provision created an automatic five-year delay in the availability of generic medicines regardless of their patent status in a country.
For the nearly 70,000 Guatemalans currently living with HIV/AIDS - 7,000 of whom are in urgent clinical need of such treatment - five years without affordable generic medicines could be a death sentence. Presently, only 2,700 Guatemalans with HIV receive antiretroviral treatment.
"A lot of people throughout Guatemalan society succeeded in pressuring their government to overturn a law that undermined public health," said Pere-Joan Pons, spokesperson for MSF's mission in Guatemala. "Now, the Ministry of Health will need to act to urgently expand access for all the Guatemalans who would otherwise die without treatment."
However, MSF warned that CAFTA includes "data exclusivity" and other restrictive intellectual property measures and extends them throughout the entire Central American region. This will further prevent Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua from taking advantage of flexibilities found in the existing World Trade Organization agreement and block generic competition - the only proven mechanism for achieving sustained and systematic price reductions.
"We cannot stop at the repeal of the Guatemalan law which blocked patients from receiving life-saving medicines. Repealing Decree 9-2003 will have little meaning if this and other intellectual property restrictions are implemented through CAFTA," said Ellen 't Hoen, the director of policy advocacy for MSF's Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines.
MSF has been treating people living with HIV/AIDS in Guatemala since 2001. Today, MSF medical teams treat more than 1,600 patients with ARVs in two Guatemala City hospitals, and health centers in Coatepeque and Puerto Barrios.
Many of the restrictive intellectual property provisions in CAFTA are also included in free trade agreements completed with Singapore, Chile, and Morocco, as well as in the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) and regional agreements with four Andean countries (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru) and five southern African countries in the Southern African Customs Union (Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland.)