Business Day, 15 November 2002, WTO on brink of new laws for generic drugs

SYDNEY World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministers were on the verge of a breakthrough last night in agreeing new laws to ensure developing nations have access to affordable drugs for HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria and other killer diseases thanks to an SA initiative.

If the deal is accepted today at an informal meeting of 25 WTO trade ministers, it will mean pledges made a year ago at the last formal WTO ministerial meeting in Doha will be enshrined in a legal agreement. It will also give the WTO a major victory in the propaganda war against antiglobalisation protesters, who are expected to continue their demonstrations in Sydney today.

SA trade ambassador to the WTO in Geneva, Faizel Ismail, said last night that the proposal being put to the WTO meeting today was based on a compromise proposal that SA tabled in Geneva last week. This has universal support among developing nations, and the challenge for SA Trade and Industry Minister Alec Erwin today will be to bring the EU and US on board.

"A year ago, the WTO ministers reaffirmed the right of developing nations to purchase or US offers free trade deal.

New laws for generic drugs manufacture drugs at affordable prices," said Ismail.

He said there were a number of complex issues to be resolved in turning this political agreement into WTO law. There was a need to specify which countries had the right to export the drugs, which had the right to import, and a need for measures to prevent cheap drugs intended for the developing world finding their way into the markets of developed nations.

The proposal, up for discussion today in the key debate of the ministerial meeting, is being tabled by Mexican Economics Minister Luis Derbez, whose country is chairing the WTO.

It suggests all countries should be allowed to export generic drugs, and developing and central European countries can import them. It contains procedures for notifying the WTO when a country starts producing generic drugs for use in developing or central European states. The legal mechanism for achieving this would be through a waiver of WTO rules, followed by a permanent amendment of WTO law.

"I am optimistic that we can strike a deal," said Ismail, echoing the sentiment of Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile earlier this week.