Health24, November 15 2002, Drugs for poor countries

Leading trade ministers have agreed on a plan to give the world's poorest nations access to affordable medicines, a breakthrough in the drive to combat global health crises like HIV/Aids, officials said.

Thai Commerce Minister Adisai Bodharamik confirmed that the policy changes will allow some developing nations to manufacture generic drugs now protected by patents and export the medicines to other needy countries on a case-by-case basis.

Helping those without pharmaceutical production capacity
The agreement came after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged 25 ministers at a meeting to draw up a proposal that would allow the 145-nation World Trade Organisation (WTO) to meet a December 31 deadline for solving the drugs issue.

The WTO agreed at a summit in Doha, Qatar, a year ago to let developing nations override patents held by pharmaceutical companies in order to produce cheaper generic drugs in times of medical crises.

But it barred those countries from exporting the generic drugs, leaving the poorest states which have no pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity in the lurch.

Moral obligation to developing world
Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile said he was confident the details of Friday's meeting could be resolved by the deadline of year's end.

"We've got a clear deadline, that deadline is in sight and there is an outcome in sight," Vaile told reporters on the sidelines of the talks.

"This is not an economic issue, this is a moral obligation that needs to be undertaken by the developed world."

He said concerns of the developed countries about maintaining the integrity of intellectual property and patents had been met.

Preventing generic flood to developed market
The agreement backed by the meeting would allow developing countries access to drugs at an affordable rate while also ensuring those drugs were not diverted to wealthy markets.

The proposal was a compromise between developing nations that wanted to scrap the export controls on patented medicines and the EU, United State and Switzerland, which have large pharmaceutical industries and feared their Western markets would be flooded with cheap, generic medicines.

The plan would grant waivers on drug patents on a case-by-case basis and seek tight controls on trade in the generic medicines.

Poor nations, facing massive outbreaks of Aids, malaria and tuberculosis, have been effectively priced out of effective medicines due to patents held by European and US-based pharmaceutical companies.

African countries in attendance
Friday's meeting was attended by a number of African countries such as Nigeria, Senegal and Lesotho which currently have to import expensive Aids/HIV drugs from the West.

Also attending were ministers from the United States, the European Union, Switzerland and Japan, along with new director-general of the WTO, Supachai Panitchpakdi. (Sapa-AFP)