US given more time to consider cheap drugs deal for poor nations

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 15 February 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:353
  1. Fiona Fleck
  1. Geneva

    Trade negotiators said on Monday they needed more time to persuade the United States to agree to a revised deal that would give African and other poor nations access to cheap, lifesaving drugs.

    Negotiators for the 144 member countries of the World Trade Organization failed to meet their deadline of reaching agreement by the end of 2002 after the United States, under pressure from its powerful pharmaceutical lobby, blocked the deal.

    Eduardo Perez Motta, Mexico's envoy at the organisation and chairman of the talks on drugs, said negotiators at the meeting of the organisation's Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) council had taken the US concerns on board and had come up with a revised plan.

    “The response from all countries is positive, but we cannot have detailed discussions until we know the position of the United States,” Mr Perez Motta told journalists on Monday. He said he hoped the United States would agree to this and that he would be able to announce a deal at a meeting scheduled for 18-20 February.

    In December the United States rejected the draft agreement, saying it was too vague and would open the way for poor countries to obtain patents to produce “lifestyle” drugs, such as sildenafil (Viagra), or drugs for non-infectious illnesses, such as diabetes or asthma (4 January, p 9).

    US negotiators insisted the deal should be limited to drugs for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and infectious epidemics. But developing countries said they should be allowed to set their own public health priorities.

    The talks aim to allow the world's poorest countries to have access to HIV/AIDS test kits and lifesaving drugs, including drugs for diseases such as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, African trypanosomiasis, cholera, dengue fever, and typhoid fever.

    Under the Doha Declaration a country that cannot afford to pay market prices for these drugs may issue “a compulsory licence” compelling the patent owner to license another producer, usually in another developing country, to produce cheaper generic versions of the patented product.

    The new text seeks to address the concerns of the United States as well as poor countries by adding a statement in which all countries reaffirm their commitment to the international patents system. In this statement countries would also make it clear that the easing in patent rules was intended mainly for use in national health emergencies, such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

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