United States Drops WTO Complaint Over Brazilian Patent Law that Allows the Manufacture of Generic AIDS Drugs
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick announced yesterday that the United States will drop its case before the World Trade Organization over a Brazilian law that allows the South American country to manufacture generic versions of patented AIDS drugs and other medicines, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports (Warner, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/26). The debate over the issue began in May 2000, when the U.S. delegation to the WTO "complained" about a provision in Brazilian patent law that states that "a foreign company must forfeit patent rights to a product after three years if the company does not begin to manufacture the product in Brazil during that time." Brazil, which provides 12 free generic HIV medicines to its citizens, most recently "threatened" to use the law to produce copies of the antiretrovirals nelfinavir and efavirenz -- "the most expensive drugs available to treat HIV infection." Contending that this rule violated international patent laws, the United States in January asked the WTO to evaluate the law (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 2/6). Brazil, however, maintained that the law is valid under WTO rules (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 6/26). The United States has decided not to pursue its case before the WTO and will instead "hash out the dispute directly with Brazil." Brazil, in turn, has agreed to notify U.S. patent holders if it "intends to use generic copies" of their drugs (Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/26). As part of the agreement, the United States "reserved the right to revive its complaint if the consultation process fails." Zoellick said in a statement, "The United States has been supportive of Brazil's bold and effective program to combat the HIV/AIDS crisis. With this positive step, we will be able to harness our common energy toward our shared goal of combating the spread of this dangerous virus." Jose Alfredo Graca Lima, Brazil's trade representative, also hailed the decision, calling it "a victory for both sides, a victory for common sense" (Crossette, New York Times, 6/26). But Zoellick maintained that patents and patent protection are "an essential U.S. trade interest" and necessary to "spur additional research and development of new pharmaceuticals" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/26).
AIDS activists praised yesterday's decision, calling it additional proof that "pharmaceutical companies can no longer expect governments to protect them against a rising tide of concern about the denial of drugs to poor victims of AIDS" (New York Times, 6/26). Paul Davis, a spokesperson for the Health GAP Coalition, said, "I think this is a tremendous victory for the Brazilian people and for people with AIDS worldwide" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/26). He added, that the decision "will serve as an important precedent for other nations desperate for ways to make [HIV/AIDS] treatment more affordable to their populations." Seth Amgott, a spokesperson for the not-for-profit group Oxfam, added that the ruling "shows that the United States is no longer threatening [the] existence" of Brazil's AIDS treatment program (New York Times, 6/26). The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America also "welcome[d]" the decision, according to a statement by PhRMA President Alan Holmer (Cooper, Wall Street Journal, 6/26). Nancy Pekarek, a spokesperson for GlaxoSmithKline -- the "world's largest manufacturer of AIDS medications" -- said, "We certainly like the fact that the U.S. and Brazilian governments are going to be talking about this and hope that by doing it this way, in a bilateral process, that it can actually get resolved more quickly" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/26).