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World: Poorest Nations Reach Accord On Generic Drugs At WTO Conference

  • Tony Wesolowsky

The world's poorest nations yesterday reached a deal at the World Trade Organization conference in Doha, Qatar, that could allow them better access to lifesaving -- but often prohibitively expensive -- drugs. The accord was formally approved by the trade ministers of the 142-nation WTO after six days of tough negotiations at the conference.

Prague, 15 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Trade ministers at marathon World Trade Organization talks in Doha have approved an agreement aimed at helping countries devastated by pandemics such as AIDS or malaria to do one of two things -- either skirt patent-protection rules to produce or buy cheaper generic drugs, or challenge pharmaceutical firms to cut prices under the threat of having their patents broken.

The wording of the agreement cites the need "to protect public health" and ensure access to medicines "for all."

Non-governmental organizations -- such as Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, and the Third World Network -- welcomed the agreement.

Bernard Pecoul of Doctors Without Borders summed up the sentiment, saying the accord puts public health above protecting intellectual property rights.

"Yesterday in Doha, I think we have observed a political statement, I would say, in favor of public health -- protecting public health, the right of the patient -- compared to the protection of intellectual property rights. So it's a kind of balance between the two."

Poorer nations have long argued that the right to cheaper, generic medicines should take priority over protecting patents to those drugs held by pharmaceutical companies. The companies argue that the manufacture and distribution of cheaper, generic imitations of their drugs will not only cost them profits but will leave them with less money to research and develop other drugs and medications.

The battle lines have been drawn pretty clearly. On the one side are the less-developed countries, mainly from the southern hemisphere. They are pitted against not only the pharmaceutical industry, but countries like the U.S. and Switzerland, where many of these companies are based.

At the heart of the issue is the so-called TRIPS accord, agreed on during the 1994 Uruguay round of trade talks, which brought patents and other forms of intellectual property rights into world trade agreements for the first time. In return for enforcing patents, poorer countries were supposed to benefit from increased trade and foreign investment. The TRIPS agreement, however, does put aside patent considerations in times of national health emergencies or other such instances.

But isn't that what yesterday's WTO agreement essentially outlines?

Pecoul says yesterday's accord makes it clearer that poorer nations can override patent considerations in the case of health emergencies.

Eric Noehrenberg covers intellectual property rights and trade issues for the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers, or IFPMA, in Geneva. He says IFPMA is pleased with the agreement because it reaffirms the primacy of TRIPS. He says reaffirming TRIPS also reaffirms the role of the pharmaceutical industry when poorer countries are weighing whether to authorize generic production of patent drugs. This practice is called "compulsory licensing."

"Well, actually, it was always part of the TRIPS agreement that compulsory licensing could be done according to certain conditions. These conditions have not changed and primary among these conditions is the fact they need to engage in negotiations with the patent holder."

But Pecoul of Doctors Without Borders and other critics say the problem with TRIPS lies in its interpretation. He says that in the last five years, when poorer countries from the southern hemisphere have tried to enforce TRIPS to either import or manufacture generic drugs they have come under pressure from pharmaceutical giants and the Western countries where they are based.

Last year, the U.S. challenged, through the WTO, a Brazilian move to establish the right under domestic law to compel pharmaceutical companies to license local companies to produce cheap versions of patented AIDS drugs. But Washington withdrew the case after a storm of protest from AIDS campaigners.

Earlier this year, 39 drug companies challenged South Africa through its national courts over proposals to buy cheap anti-AIDS drugs from India. As in the first case, the companies later gave up the fight after widespread criticism.

Pecoul says the pharmaceutical lobby's case was undermined in Doha by recent U.S. and Canadian threats to override patents on Cipro, a drug made by the German drug giant Bayer that is used to treat anthrax. Four people have died in the U.S. from anthrax since September.

Pecoul say he and other campaigners are not opposed to pharmaceutical companies protecting their patents and making money. But he says a balance needs to be found.

"[It's] mainly important for them in rich countries where they have a profitable market. So I think it is a question of balance. We have never said that patents are not useful to stimulate research. We just say that a patent is going further now. The recent use of patents was not very well balanced because its main effect was to increase the price of drugs and not at all to stimulate research and development for the diseases mainly prevalent in developing countries."

Noehrenberg and others argue that often, providing better health care in developing countries would do more to help people than the provision of free drugs. Moreover, Noehrenberg says the industry has on a case-by-case basis reduced costs of drugs to many poorer countries.

"Over the past three years, our companies have given over $1.9 billion worth of medicines, either as donations or at reduced prices, to developing countries."

It seems safe to say the debate on how to get cheap drugs to those who need them quickly and safely will continue despite yesterday's agreement.