As World Trade Organization Talks Begin, ‘Bitter Disputes’ Anticipated Over Access to Patented AIDS DrugsWorld Trade Organization ministers begin a conference today in Doha, Qatar, that will likely involve "bitter disputes" over developing nations' ability to override pharmaceutical companies' patents on AIDS drugs, the Los Angeles Times reports (Vieth, Los Angeles Times, 11/9). According to the San Francisco Chronicle, 60 nations have proposed a declaration making changes to the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement that would "clearly affirm the right to sidestep" international patent law in the event of a public health emergency "to ensure access to medicines for all." According to the declaration, "Nothing ... shall prevent members from taking measures to protect public health." The United States, "staunchly opposed" to the declaration, will likely "fight" the proposal, which would allow developing nations to ease patent protections and manufacture generic versions of costly AIDS drugs. Brazil and India have emerged as the "primary backers" of the declaration. Mark Grayson, a spokesperson for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, called the declaration a "disaster," adding that "no patent of the drug industry would be safe." He said that Brazil and India hoped to use the declaration to "give their generic drug industries a freer hand" to "take the property" of brand-name drug companies. "They've hijacked the AIDS crisis to hone their own industrial development," Grayson said. Although WTO ministers will likely address the issue at the Qatar conference, the Chronicle reports that negotiations may "go on for years."
Meanwhile, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has proposed a rival plan that would extend until 2016 the time that the "poorest 40 or so" nations have to "comply with international patent rules" and would "shield" sub-Saharan African nations -- the "epicenter of the global AIDS epidemic" -- from "trade actions relating to drug patents." Zoellick said, "As the United States and our trading partners pursue free trade, we need to do so in a way that is consistent with our values and draws on our compassion" (Russell, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/8). Zoellick also had the U.S. government donate $1 million to a WTO trust fund for developing countries to use to implement the TRIPS rules. He has courted developing nations since taking over the job of U.S. trade representative this year. "Zoellick understands that developing countries are a new force to reckon with. You can't just dictate to them anymore," Moroccan WTO Ambassador Nacer Benjelloun-Touimi said. Zoellick's success or failure with negotiations depends largely on the relationships he has formed with ministers from developing nations, the Wall Street Journal reports (Cooper/Winestock, Wall Street Journal, 11/9).
AIDS activists "dismiss" Zoellick's compliance-extension proposal, which they say would exclude South Africa and India, as an "empty gesture" (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/8). "If the world's richest countries cannot even put the health of the world's poorest people ahead of the interests of a handful of drug companies, there is not much hope of a comprehensive deal on trade in Doha," Phil Twyford of Oxfam International said (Vieth, Los Angeles Times, 11/9). Meanwhile, the two main lobby groups for the pharmaceutical industry have increased their presence on Capitol Hill, "draw[ing] attention" to a study appearing in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that says poverty, a lack of health infrastructure, tariffs and taxes are all greater impediments to drug access in sub-Saharan Africa than drug patents (Garrett, Newsday, 11/9).
In addition, activists have accused the Bush administration, which "muscled steep price concessions" from Bayer AG for the antibiotic Cipro to treat inhalation anthrax infection, of "rank hypocrisy." HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson last month "reportedly threatened to sidestep" Bayer's Cipro patent to negotiate a 50% price reduction on 300 million Cipro tablets. "The Cipro thing was timely," James Love, of Consumer Project on Technology, said, adding, "When the United States did not like the price of a medicine, we were very fast to say we might override patent rights. When Brazil did the same thing (for AIDS drugs), they were savaged" (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/8). The Cipro deal is a "very timely example of the double standard that exists," Seco Gerard, European Union liaison for Medicins Sans Frontiers, added (Itano, Christian Science Monitor, 11/9).
Proposals are being taken up in Congress that would increase generic competition, giving health activists cause for encouragement. The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would "force" makers of patented drugs to disclose any agreements they have made with generic competitors to keep cheaper versions of their drugs off the market. Such disclosures would be subject to Federal Trade Commission review. The Senate is also considering a bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would close loopholes in the 1984 Hatch-Waxman law that allow companies to extend drug patents, staving off generic competition. However, action is not expected until next year (Gellene, Los Angeles Times, 11/9).
Protests in Thailand
Anti-globalization activists staged a protest today in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, to protest the United States' stance on the TRIPS accord and to "deman[d] the revocation" of patents on AIDS drugs and other medicines needed for "diseases commonly found in developing countries," Dow Jones International News Service reports. The Thai Network for People Living With HIV and AIDS said the U.S. government applies a "double standard" to pharmaceutical patents and called for revisions to the TRIPS agreement (Dow Jones International News Service, 11/9).