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Drugs battle at WTO

Patented drugs are more expensive but millions go into their development  

DOHA, Qatar -- Differences between rich and poor countries over the use of cheap drugs are narrowing at the WTO conference, a U.S. official has said.

Rich nations want to protect multi-million dollar patents for health companies that develop new drugs to fight killer diseases such as AIDS.

Those worse off say they cannot afford the drugs and their nationals are dying as a result so they should be allowed to make or buy cheap alternatives known as generics.

The issue of patent rules -- known as Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS in WTO jargon -- has bitterly divided developed and developing countries.

WTO officials see resolving it as essential to correcting the image that freer trade favours the rich over the poor.

World Trade Organization in Doha 

The U.S. official said delegates at the Doha conference were "beginning to reach a better sense of convergence. I think (there has been) good progress."

But a European envoy remained cautious telling Reuters news agency: "There is no consensus text yet and I don't think there will be until the last minute. We're not out of the woods yet."

Brazil and India are leading the developing countries in the battle for the right to make or import generic drugs.

They are looking for a waiver -- on public health grounds -- of rules that guarantee 20-year patents on medicines. Without the waiver allowing them to use generics they fear legal action from either the drugs companies or the WTO.

They say they cannot afford the expensive patented drugs to treat millions of their nationals with diseases such as malaria and AIDS.

The U.S. has been heading the industrialised nations' fight against a blanket waiver. They say it could threaten the $300 billion a year drugs industry.

It says a 1994 TRIPS agreement offers flexibility to poor countries responding to health emergencies. Washington has proposed giving the least developed countries a 10-year extension until 2016 to implement TRIPS and a five-year moratorium on contesting any drug patent actions taken by sub-Saharan Africa.

Poor countries at Doha have complained that this concession does not go far enough.


• Drugs under WTO spotlight
November 8, 2001
• Brazil to make generic AIDS drug
August 23, 2001
• Pfizer to dante AIDS drugs
June 6, 2001
• Drugs firms end S Africa generics action
April 19, 2001
• Q&A: S Africa generics battle
April 18, 2001

• World Trade Organization

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