WTO approves measures to improve access to cheaper medicines in developing countries

Tuesday, December 6th 2005, 11:31 am
By: News On 6

GENEVA (AP) _ World Trade Organization members on Tuesday approved measures to make it easier for developing countries to get cheaper generic versions of medicines for communicable diseases like AIDS.

Changes to the WTO's intellectual property agreement would make permanent a waiver currently in place and allow poor countries without their own pharmaceutical manufacturing capacities to import cheaper copies of patented medicines for humanitarian purposes.

The agreement ``confirms once again that members are determined to ensure the WTO's trading system contributes to humanitarian and development goals as they prepare for the Hong Kong ministerial conference,'' said WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy.

Next week's meeting is supposed to set up a conclusion to the current Doha round of trade talks, which aims to cut trade barriers across a wide range of sectors and is supposed to address the needs of developing countries.

``The amendment is designed to match the 2003 waiver as closely as possible,'' the WTO said in a statement. ``In order to achieve this, delegations have been involved in intricate legal discussions aimed at ensuring that the legal meaning and weight, and the hierarchy of provisions, are preserved as exactly as possible.''

WTO members have set Dec. 1, 2007, as a deadline to ratify the amendment, the organization said. It would need to be approved by two-thirds of the 148 members. The waiver remains in force until then.

``This is a landmark achievement that we hope will help developing countries devastated by HIV/AIDS and other public health crises,'' said U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.

The decision is ``a key element in the fight against communicable diseases,'' the European Union said in a statement. ``Measures like this that make cheaper drugs available need to be combined with stable and functioning health care systems and better public awareness of disease risks through education.''

French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said the waiver, which the agreement will replace, has failed to prove it can increase access to medicines, however.

``To date there is no experience using the mechanism _ not one patient has benefited from its use _ despite the fact that newer medicines, such as second-line AIDS drugs, are priced out of reach of poor patients,'' MSF said in a statement. ``This decision shows that the WTO is ignoring the day-to-day reality of drug production and procurement.''

WTO members are eager to reach a deal in Hong Kong, but Lamy's recently released draft text _ which sets out the basis for negotiations on a final agreement at the summit _ shows how far members are from agreeing on critical issues, including the liberalization of trade in farm products and manufactured goods.

``I am very glad that we have been able to reach agreement on this important question,'' EU trade chief Peter Mandelson said, referring to the agreement on medicines. ``The EU has worked hard for this outcome and welcomes that others have moved to make this possible.''