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Revised NAFTA Deal Threatens Patients

Public Citizen News / May-June 2019

By Hannah Lyon

This article appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

My name is Hannah Lyon, and I need your help stopping President Trump’s revised North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) from locking in outrageously high medicine prices.

It is unconscionable to allow a trade agreement to keep cutting-edge cancer treatments out of the hands of those who need them most.

Conventional cancer treatments can have terrible side effects, leave the patient weaker than ever and often fail to provide a cure.

I should know. At age 27, after undergoing intense chemotherapy and daily radiation treatments for stage 3B cervical cancer, I was skinny, pale and desperate to start the road to recovery.

But three months later, I received terrible news: My cancer was back and had spread to lymph nodes in my neck.

As you may know, stage 4 cervical cancer is usually a death sentence.

After the second diagnosis, I found a clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health. My white blood cells were extracted, genetically modified and reinserted into my bloodstream. They proceeded to attack and destroy the cancer cells.

Thanks to this new biologic treatment, my immune system recovered rapidly, my hair grew back and I am now a happy and productive resident of California. Biologic drugs — which are medical products derived from living organisms — can include cancer treatments like mine, as well as vaccines and heart disease and diabetes treatments.

These biologic treatments offer hope to millions. But they are often out of reach because pharmaceutical corporations hold long monopolies on the patents and so can jack up the prices to make the drugs unaffordable.

In 2016, President Donald Trump won key swing states and the election in no small part because of his unrelenting populist trade pledge to stop American job outsourcing and bring jobs back through a fast NAFTA renegotiation. After more than a year of secret negotiations, a revised “NAFTA 2.0” text was signed in late 2018, but it can become law only if Congress approves it.

Trump’s revised NAFTA would lock in high prices for biologic treatments like the one that helped me. Because of Big Pharma’s privileged access during the secret renegotiations, NAFTA 2.0 includes lengthy monopoly protections for innovative treatments like biologics, keeping them far too costly for most Americans, Mexicans and Canadians.

Among other dangerous terms, NAFTA 2.0 requires each country to provide drugmakers at least 10 years of “marketing exclusivity” for new biologic medicines. This monopoly for brand-name drugs would keep cheaper “biosimilars” (i.e., generic biologics) off the market.

Members of Congress have drafted legislation to cut the U.S. biologic marketing exclusivity period from its current 12 years to seven. This would save patients and taxpayers billions. But this pro-health, cost-cutting reform would violate NAFTA 2.0 and thus expose the United States to tariff sanctions.

In short, NAFTA 2.0 would tie Congress’ hands, limiting our ability to make biologic drugs more affordable.

And the pact would export our high drug price policies to Mexico, which now has no special exclusivity period for biologic drugs, and to Canada, which now has an eight-year period.

My wish is that all people affected by cancer have access to treatments like mine and can move beyond cancer to healthy and fulfilling lives.

That’s why in 2016, I co-founded Cancer Families for Affordable Medicines (CancerFAM) to fight similar medicines provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Those controversial provisions — which are even more extreme in the revised NAFTA — were a leading reason Congress didn’t pass the TPP. Those provisions have since been eliminated in the version that the other 11 TPP countries signed.

Now, Public Citizen and CancerFAM are working together to educate people about the harmful provisions that Big Pharma won in the revised NAFTA. We are urging Congress to demand the removal of these provisions before a vote is held. A coalition petition drive with this demand already has more than 175,000 signatures Please look for an email from Public Citizen about the petition, or visit ReplaceNAFTA.org to take action and help stop this outrageous attack on cancer patients.