Creating Momentum for Doha; Trade Talks Need to Focus on Fewer Barriers

Article excerpt


The Doha multilateral trade round is in crisis.An important deadline was missed in late March to establish a framework for agriculture negotiations.And there is uncertainty about whether progress can be achieved during the remaining months before the ministerial meeting in Cancun in September. A sign of renewed confidence and momentum for the trade round is urgently needed.

While the agricultural discussions appear deadlocked, there is one step than can be taken now to return momentum to the trade round, a round that could help produce economic growth and new jobs in the United States, as well as lift millions around the world out of poverty this decade.With a little movement from all sides, a compromise can be forged by this month's World Trade Organization meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, over the highly symbolic issue of expanding access to essential medicines.

The problem negotiators are trying to resolve is straightforward if also polarizing and politically charged.Under the treaty on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), patents are allowed on drugs because they spur the development of new medicines. But the treaty is finely balanced. Countries facing emergencies can override patents as long as rights-holders are compensated and the drugs are produced locally in accordance with TRIPS rules. Because most poor countries lack this domestic manufacturing capacity, they need a safety valve that, in an emergency would allow them to import generic copies from traditional suppliers in such countries as India, Argentina or Egypt.

In November 2001, the international community agreed to find a workable mechanism that creates such a legal safety valve for poor countries. But negotiations remain mired in a dispute among WTO Members over the scope of diseases that should be covered by this mechanism. The United States has proposed limiting the scope to major killers in poor countries such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and other epidemics. Many developing countries want an open-ended arrangement under which they could import copies of patented drugs for any disease.

*Poverty is the barrier, not patents.

Some have portrayed this impasse in the negotiations as the reason why millions continue to lack access to essential, life-saving medicines. But this ignores the fact that the vast majority of essential drugs are already off patent or were never patented in developing countries. For the majority of people in the world who live on less than a dollar a day, patents are not the barrier, it is profound, grinding poverty. Poverty, perpetuated by corrupt governments, failed economic policies and political systems, and the refusal of wealthy nations to allow poor countries to compete in their markets, explains why countless millions do not have access to healthcare and medicines. …