WTO Ministers Issue Declaration Stating Patent Rules ‘Should Not Prevent’ Nations From Protecting Public Health
A World Trade Organization ministerial working group meeting in Doha, Qatar, has approved and issued a declaration stating that developing nations can override patent protections to produce medicines during public health emergencies, the Wall Street Journal reports (Cooper/Winestock, Wall Street Journal, 11/15). The declaration addresses the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, which outlines international patent rules. The declaration states that TRIPS needs to be part of wider national and international action to address epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. "We agree that the TRIPS agreement does not and should not prevent [WTO] members from taking measures to protect public health. Accordingly, while reiterating our commitment to the TRIPS agreement, we affirm that the agreement can and should be interpreted and implemented in a manner supportive of WTO members' right to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all," the declaration states. The text also says that each WTO member has the right to issue compulsory licenses and the liberty to determine when to issue those licenses. In cases of pharmaceuticals, the "least developed" WTO member nations are not required to implement TRIPS rules relating to patents until Jan. 1, 2016, and may apply for extensions of transition periods. The Council for TRIPS has been tasked with addressing the whether countries can also import generics from other nations and is expected to report its findings before the end of 2002 ("Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health," 11/14). The Los Angeles Times reports that none of the Doha agreements requires immediate congressional approval, although U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick may find that his work on the drug patent declaration will "alienate" him from pharmaceutical companies and their "allies in Congress" (Vieth, Los Angeles Times, 11/15). WTO negotiators are now set to begin three years of talks on issues such as medicine prices and food exports (Toedtman, Newsday, 11/15). The full text of the ministerial declaration on TRIPS and pharmaceuticals is available online.
AIDS Activists Pleased
AIDS activists are largely pleased with the WTO declaration. "It's the greatest moment of our entire campaign -- we're euphoric. We could have written that declaration ourselves," Jamie Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, said (Harris/Zimmerman, Wall Street Journal, 11/15). Ellen 't Hoen of Doctors Without Borders added, "Countries can ensure access to medicines without fear of being dragged into a legal battle" (Geitner, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/15). Oxfam called the declaration "a clear victory [for] public health." Michael Bailey, senior policy adviser for Oxfam, said, "The deal on patents will help poor countries get cheaper medicines. Doha sends a strong message that people's health overrides the interests of big drug companies, who will find it much harder to bully poor countries over patents" (Oxfam release, 11/14).
Drug Industry 'Satisfied' With Text
The pharmaceutical industry, which had opposed greater TRIPS flexibility, said that the new declaration will not have a great impact on drug makers. Alan Holmer, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said that his group is "satisfied" that the text does not "expand or diminish the rights and obligations" within world trade agreements (Harris/Zimmerman, Wall Street Journal, 11/15). The declaration states that WTO members "recognize that intellectual property protection is important" and agree to "maintai[n] our commitments in the TRIPS agreement" ("Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health," 11/14). Holmer cited these clauses in a PhRMA press release, saying, "The declaration recognizes that TRIPS and patents are part of the solution to better public health, not a barrier to access. Without altering the existing rights and obligations under TRIPS, the declaration provides assurances that countries may take all measures consistent with the agreement to protect the health of their citizens" (PhRMA release, 11/14). However, other drug industry officials were less pleased with the text. Henry McKinnell, chair and CEO of Pfizer, Inc., said the declaration is the result of "a public relations campaign by Indian generics manufacturers seeking to retain their rights to copy drug makers' discoveries" (Harris/Zimmerman, Wall Street Journal, 11/15).