Business Day, 18 November 2002, WTO makes progress on generic drug rules

SYDNEY SA Trade and Industry Minister Alec Erwin has hailed progress made at an informal World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting towards agreement on binding global rules that will give developing nations the right to purchase generic drugs for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

The agreement will also authorise SA to manufacture generic medicines not only for its own needs, but also for export to subSaharan Africa. WTO ambassadors in still need to formalise the progress made in Sydney, but Erwin said the basic architecture was now in place to transform a political commitment into binding rules.

Without WTO cover for the import, export and production of generic drugs, there would be a danger that developing nations would be unable to secure medicines to deal with medical crisis and serious health threats.

"We are very close to a deal," said Erwin. "This meeting has taken a positive step forward."

He said once the deal was formalised SA and other members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) could manufacture generic drugs for export to the SADC region.

"We have some manufacturing capacity, but the needs in southern Africa are considerable," said Erwin.

Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile, who chaired the meeting of WTO trade ministers in Sydney, confirmed that the accord on medicines would need to be fine-tuned in Geneva.

"There is a high level of confidence that this issue may be resolved by the end of the year," said Vaile.

US special trade representative Robert Zoellick agreed. "We are not totally there yet. but this is something we can do this year."

Erwin said developed countries would be expected to "opt out" of exporting cheap generic drugs to developing nations.

He said calls by SA, Australia and other agricultural exporting nations for the EU, US and Japan to drop import barriers and trade-distorting farm subsidies were also discussed.