Doha: poor countries get better access to medicines

Negotiators at the Doha Summit in Qatar reached a compromise agreement on the issue of poorer countries’ access to medicines. This breakthrough seems to be smoothing the way for further constructive talks. Progress was made on other dossiers (agriculture, environment) so that optimism grew over the possibility of reaching, before the end of the Summit on Tuesday 13 November, an overall agreement to start a new global trade round.

Developing countries have asked that laws on drug patents be relaxed and have accused global pharmaceutical companies of trying to profit from AIDS and bioterrorism. Poor countries cannot afford the cost of the drugs needed. Drug patents are currently protected by the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of International Property Rights (TRIPS). This agreement was first signed in 1994, and is now binding on 142 countries. Developing countries want to be able to produce or import generic drugs which are cheaper, but this would violate the TRIPS rules as they stand today.

On Monday, the EU and the US made a major concession agreeing that the intellectual property rights accord TRIPS “shall not prevent (WTO) members from taking measures to protect public health”. The deal will give developing countries the right to produce or import cheaper generic drugs in case of a public health crisis.

The major stumbling block for reaching an agreement on launching the new trade round, is the phasing out of agricultural subsidies. The EU, under pressure from France, got isolated when Japan and South Korea gave in to pressure to start negotiations on this issue.

 

WTO countries are tyring to reach an agreement on a new global trade round at the Doha meeting after the collapse of their last talks in Seattle December 1999, which threatened the credibility of the organisation.

 

The fourth WTO ministerial conference will end at midnight on 13 November.

 

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