As WTO Meeting Approaches, Developing Countries Seeking Greater Access to Drugs Seize on U.S. Threat to Break Cipro Patent
HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson's threat earlier this week to break the patent of Bayer's antibiotic Cipro if the company did not reduce the drug's price has "emboldened" developing nations hoping to "convince international trade rule makers that poor countries should be allowed to exercise such powers to improve access to essential medicines," including HIV/AIDS drugs, the Wall Street Journal reports. Debate on this issue is "likely to reach a peak" at the Nov. 9 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Doha, Qatar, where global health and HIV/AIDS activists will press the United States to "issue a strong straightforward declaration that nothing should prevent any trade agreements from blocking poor countries' ability to purchase life-saving medicines." Thompson finalized a deal with Bayer on Wednesday to sell millions of doses of Cipro -- the "current antibiotic of choice" for treating anthrax -- to the federal government at a nearly 50% reduction from its previous price. While the threat to break Cipro's patent "was apparently very effective," it would have, "if realized ... represented a sharp departure from the United States' longstanding position" that countries must honor drug patents, including its support of upholding HIV/AIDS patents in poor countries, the Journal reports. "The events of the past few days have made those of us from developing countries think, what we have been fighting for is fair," Nelson Ndirangu, a WTO delegate from Kenya, said, adding, "If the U.S. can tell Bayer: 'Reduce the price -- or else,' why can't Kenya tell" GlaxoSmithKline the same thing. James Love, director of the patent-policy watchdog group the Consumer Project on Technology, said that WTO delegates are "besides themselves at the hypocrisy of the [United States'] position" on Cipro (Zimmermann/Winestock, Wall Street Journal, 10/26).
At the upcoming WTO meeting, Brazil will seek a declaration stating that "nothing in the (WTO intellectual-property) agreement shall prevent governments from taking measures to protect public health," the Washington Post reports. A U.S. trade official, however, said that this language "would really undo" the rules protecting patents that were established by the WTO in 1995. "It would be basically saying, 'If we feel we aren't obliged to follow (the rules), we don't have to," the official said (Blustein, Washington Post, 10/26). Instead, the United States and "other rich countries" favor a more "limited" proposal guaranteeing "access to medicines at affordable prices" for poor countries (Wall Street Journal, 10/26). In any case, the patent issue "poses a serious threat" to an agreement at the Qatar meeting. An official at the WTO's Geneva headquarters, noting that the WTO leadership spent "most of last weekend" attempting unsuccessfully to reach a compromise, said, "It's really proven a tough nut to crack" (Washington Post, 10/26). The proposals submitted by the WTO ministers from Brazil and other developing nations and the United States, as well as a collection of TRIPS-related information, are available online at the WTO Web site.