By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*
Pundits who dismiss MERCOSUR and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) as failed attempts at Latin American economic integration should look again. MERCOSUR has presided over an explosion in intra-regional trade among its four original member states (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) from just over US$ 5 billion at its launch in 1991 to US$ 43 billion by 2014. UNASUR, for its part, is credited with thwarting a coup attempt against Evo Morales in 2008 and putting a damper on continental arms races.
- MERCOSUR and UNASUR member countries have taken additional important steps toward convergence since 2014, when MERCOSUR’s highest governing body adopted “CMC Decision 32,” which allows initiatives pursued by either collective to be binding on both if they arise from a set of goals and objectives common to both. The document reaffirms the UNASUR founding treaty stipulation that “South American integration shall be achieved through an innovative process that includes all of the achievements and advances by the processes of MERCOSUR and CAN [Andean Community].” Chile has spearheaded this effort as a means of reducing duplication of efforts, and is also attempting to bridge ideological differences between the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) and MERCOSUR to further build Latin American unity.
Given the relentless negative assessment of both integration projects, multinational pharmaceutical companies were caught off guard when MERCOSUR and UNASUR forced them late last year to make substantial price cuts for public-sector purchases of Darunavir, an antiretroviral to combat HIV-AIDS, as well as Sofosbuvir, used with other medications to treat Hepatitis C. Both drugs are on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. As a result of CMC Decision 32/14, the Ministers of Health of all the South American nations met in Montevideo on September 11, 2015, and launched a joint MERCOSUR/UNASUR committee to negotiate with multinational pharmaceutical companies on the prices for bulk purchases of certain high-priced drugs. The committee, made up of representatives from each government’s agency responsible for purchasing medicines, won major price cuts last November – a steep reduction for Darunavir from Hetero Labs as well as lower prices with Gilead for Sofosbuvir. The new costs were premised on the lowest amount charged to any one of the member governments, and enabled Chile’s Ministry of Health to pay 90 percent less than what it previously paid for Darunavir. The South American governments as a whole are expected to save US$ 20 million in 2016 on purchases of this anti-retroviral. A proposed 14 percent reduction in the cost of the combination Sofosbuvir-Ledispaver drug for Hepatitis C – if accepted by the MERCOSUR/UNASUR committee – would enable further savings.
The South American governments have their eyes set on several additional high-priced medications, with a particular focus on drugs used to treat cancer. In order to aid the committee’s work, UNASUR is creating a data bank of the prices charged by the multinationals for specified medicines purchased by the public health sector in each member state. The fact that the purchases are made jointly through the Pan American Health Organization’s already existing Strategic Fund opens the possibility that countries in Central America and the Caribbean can benefit as well. It also means that all these countries can access the Fund’s capital account and do not need to have the cash in hand to acquire medications required to address public health emergencies. MERCOSUR and UNASUR – often dismissed as ineffective – are demonstrating that integration produces tangible results.
February 11, 2016
* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and is former chair of Western Hemisphere Area Studies at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (2011-15).
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that “a 14 percent reduction in the cost of its combination Sofosbuvir-Ledispaver drug for Hepatitis C will enable Chile’s Ministry of Health to pay 90 percent less than what it previously paid for Darunavir.” The outcomes of the cost negotiations for the two medications are unconnected.