WTO agreement on cheap drugs for poor countries finalized

Friday, August 29, 2003

GENEVA -- A World Trade Organization group agreed Thursday to allow poor nations access to inexpensive copies of drugs to fight such diseases as AIDS and malaria, after the United States gave its endorsement.

The agreement, which will almost certainly be ratified by the entire WTO later Thursday, came as the council on intellectual property settled its most divisive dispute.

The WTO council adopted a document first proposed last December that will let developing countries ignore some patent rules in importing drugs from cheaper generic manufacturers.

To satisfy the concerns of the United States and its pharmaceutical research industry, the document is accompanied by a new paper setting out conditions for the use of the measure.

Under WTO rules, countries facing public health crises have the right to override patents on vital drugs and order copies from cheaper, generic suppliers. However, until now they could only order from domestic producers -- useless for the huge majority of developing countries that have no domestic pharmaceutical industry.

U.S. pharmaceutical research companies were concerned that a deal to allow countries to import generic drugs would be abused by generics manufacturers and could also lead to drugs being smuggled back into rich countries.

Humanitarian concerns

However, all sides have accepted that the problem has to be settled for humanitarian reasons and because of the damage it has done to the public perception of the WTO -- the 146-nation body that sets rules on international trade.

Failure to reach agreement would have thrown a huge cloud over a crucial meeting of WTO ministers in Cancun, Mexico, in less than two weeks' time, and would jeopardize the chance agreement there on other issues as part of the current "round" of trade liberalization negotiations.

The wording of the statement was agreed by a core group of negotiators from the United States, Brazil, India, Kenya and South Africa, then presented to all members late Wednesday.

No country signaled that it opposed the agreement, but the talks Thursday aimed to clear up some final questions.

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