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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Millions of people dependent on life-saving generic drugs to treat HIV/AIDS will die if India stops producing cheap drugs for the disease due to its trade deal with the European Union, the head of UNAIDS warned on Tuesday.
The EU and India are currently negotiating a free-trade agreement, which campaigners say will restrict India's ability to produce anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs, preventing the world's poor from accessing cheap drugs for their treatment.
"India should resist removing any flexibility because any trade agreement which could lead to India not being able to produce will be terrible for the rest of the world," said Michel Sidibe, executive director for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
"Millions of people will die if India cannot produce and Africa will be the most affected. For me, it is an issue of life or death," he told Reuters in an interview, adding that about 86 percent of people on treatment were taking drugs made in India.
The EU-India trade deal includes measures that could delay or restrict competition from generic medicines by extending patent terms, requiring data exclusivity and tightening border enforcement rules.
Such moves could drive up prices for India's anti-retroviral treatments, limit dosage options and delay access to newer and better drugs, said a U.N. report in September last year.
Thirty years after the HIV/AIDS virus was first discovered, experts say while substantial progress has been made by the global community in stemming it, only a fraction of those living with the illness are on medication.
At a high level U.N. meeting last month, nations agreed on a set of ambitious targets to rid the world of disease, including scaling up the provision of generics to reach 15 million patients from six million by 2015.
The trade deal, Sidibe said, would reverse many of the gains made in improving the lives of the world's poor.
"We have been fighting for so long to make sure that poor people could have access to treatment," he said. "For me, it will be the beginning of reversing all the gains we made on social justice and redistribution of opportunity."
Sidibe, a Mali national, said African leaders were asking India to really pay serious attention to any trade agreement which would block them to produce quality generic drugs for very poor people.
"It is not a rich pocket of people in the developed world who will be deprived of drugs, it will be the most needy, the most poor."
Editing by Yoko Nishikawa