Controversial Agreement Reached on Generic Drugs

Article excerpt

In the preparatory meeting for the Fifth World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Cancun, Mexico, Sept. 10-14, a last-minute deal was reached to allow poor countries to import generic drugs to respond to health crises. Critics, however, said the Aug. 30 deal at the Geneva meeting contained so many requirements that it would do little to improve availability of much-needed drugs.

Access to medications is dealt with under the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Poor countries want the right to produce or purchase low-cost or generic drugs to treat HIV-Aids, malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases. But the big multinational and US-based pharmaceutical firms hold the patents on many of these medications.

WTO member countries had agreed in principle in 2001 that the patent regime should be waived in certain circumstances, allowing developing countries to buy low-cost generic drugs.

The matter was close to being resolved last December, when the chair of the TRIPS council at the WTO, Mexican negotiator Eduardo Perez Motta, obtained majority backing for a declaration that the developing countries found acceptable. But the US delegation blocked the agreement at the WTO.

The US stand on the issue has gradually weakened since Sept. 11, 2001. In the wake of the anthrax scare, the US used the "anti-terrorist" card to pressure the manufacturer of the anthrax vaccine to lower the price, making it harder to argue in favor of denying that possibility to other countries. In addition, new health problems, such as SARS, convinced the US to drop efforts to restrict any exceptions on drug patents to treatments for HIV-Aids, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Geneva meeting falters

The latest effort on the drug-access issue was crafted by negotiators from Brazil, India, Kenya, South Africa, and the US. It included requirements for a "compulsory license" or permission to ignore patent restrictions in exceptional circumstances.

But hope for a success dimmed when several countries led by the Philippines threatened to block the deal. They objected to an accompanying statement aimed at reassuring the pharmaceuticals lobby. The statement said that rules allowing countries to override patents "should be used in good faith to protect public health...not as an instrument to pursue industrial or commercial policy objectives." It called for special measures to prevent drugs being smuggled back to rich country markets, including special packaging or different colored tablets.

When the Philippines balked, dissent spread among developing countries, with 20 others indicating they had problems with the draft deal. "You have rich white people telling African countries what is good for them," said one senior trade source.

Agreement came the following morning after an appeal from several African delegates. They said that more than 8,000 Africans likely died of HIV-Aids and other treatable diseases in the hours since the deadlock, and more than 2 million have likely died since the US blocked the draft of the deal in December 2002.

The agreement was one of the few successes, for those who saw it as a success, at the Geneva meeting. Uruguayan Ambassador Carlos Perez del Castillo, current chair of the WTO's General Council, and WTO director-general Supachai Panitchpakdi submitted their draft declaration to ministers on Aug. 31. But the cover letter said the draft had not been agreed to "in any part" and did not include many of the member governments' proposals. They said, however, that "it remains our best judgment of what could constitute a workable framework for action by Ministers at Cancun."

In Cancun, the trade ministers of the WTO's 146 member countries will assess the state of trade negotiations of the Doha Round, launched in the Qatar capital in November 2001. The Doha Round is facing contentious debate between the developing South and the industrialized North, particularly regarding agricultural subsidies. …