EU Parliament clears access to cheap medicines for poor nations

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After tough negotiations with the Commission and member states, the European Parliament has finally endorsed an international agreement on improving access to medicines for developing countries. To come into force, the protocol must be ratified by at least two thirds of WTO members.

After the vote had already been postponed three times by Parliament’s trade committee, the EP finally gave its assent to a protocol amending a World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) on 24 October 2007. 

The protocol aims to facilitate developing countries’ access to medicines, by enabling countries “with insufficient or no manufacturing capacity in the pharmaceutical sector” to address public health emergencies, such as AIDS or malaria, by importing cheap generic versions of patented drugs. 

But up till now, Parliament had been blocking its adoption because it was unsatisfied with Commission and Council assurances that they would truly help developing nations to manufacture and import affordable medicines. 

The EU’s Portuguese Presidency offered a solution on 22 October, with a last-minute statement committing the EU to providing financial support for facilitating and increasing technology transfer and the production of pharmaceutical products by developing countries themselves. 

The Commission also agreed to a Parliament demand not to include any public health or intellectual property provisions that could compromise poor countries’ access to medicines when negotiating free trade deals with them – and notably in the Economic Partnership Agreements currently under negotiation with the countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, although Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson stressed that this had never been the Commission’s intention. 

“This is an historic victory and an extraordinary advance for the European Parliament,” commented Erika Mann, Socialist Group spokesperson on trade policy. 

The liberal rapporteur for Parliament on this issue Gianluca Susta agreed but stressed that “the real struggle for access to medicines against HIV/AIDS is still not over. Bureaucracy and reluctance from the most-developed countries are often a major impediment. I am sure there will be other occasions when we have to return to this and reaffirm our stance”. 

Many fear the mechanism is too complex and time-consuming to actually make a difference. 

Since the protocol was agreed in 2003, Rwanda is the only poor country that has announced its intention to make use of it to import an AIDS treatment. And Canada is the only rich country to have notified the WTO that it would authorise the manufacture of a generic version of the patented medicine sought by Rwanda for export. 

What’s more, to come into force, the waiver needs to be ratified by at least two thirds of WTO members, or 100 countries – originally before 1 December 2007. 

However, the WTO has agreed to prolong the deadline for a further two years because, as of 28 September 2007, just 11 countries had completed ratification: Australia, the US, India, Israel, Japan, Norway, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, El Salvador, Singapore and Switzerland. 

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