United States, European Union Propose Allowing Countries With Health Crises to Import Cheaper Versions of Patented Drugs
The Bush administration and the European Commission, the European Union's executive body, said yesterday that they will submit separate proposals supporting developing countries' rights to obtain inexpensive HIV/AIDS medications produced in violation of international patents by countries such as India and Brazil, the Wall Street Journal reports (Winestock/King, Wall Street Journal, 6/25). The proposals, which are expected to be submitted today to a World Trade Organization council in Geneva, Switzerland, build upon a declaration adopted at WTO talks in Doha, Qatar, last year that recognized the right of WTO members to "override patents on expensive Western drugs and make the products themselves when public health is at stake" (Geitner, AP/Nando Times, 6/24). Under the U.S. and E.U. proposals, however, developing countries, many of which cannot produce generic AIDS medicines themselves, would be permitted to "contract" with other countries -- including Brazil, India, China and Egypt -- that would market low-cost medications to treat malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Guidelines would be created to prevent generic drugs from being re-exported to developed countries. According to trade officials, the proposals begin the process of creating policies that are not "overly burdensome" to developing countries but protect the markets of large U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies.
A Big Step Backward?
While the E.U. proposal calls for amending the Trade-Related Aspects of International Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement to allow countries to violate drug patents, U.S. pharmaceutical companies and the administration appears to support the creation of a WTO-administered waiver system that would allow developing countries to contract out for generic drugs on a "case-by-case basis." Such a mechanism is necessary so that drug makers "at least know when someone is going to be producing [their] patented drugs," according to Mark Grayson, a spokesperson for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. James Love, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Project on Technology, criticized the U.S. proposal and said, "The aim [of the waiver system] is to make this so difficult and complicated that it will seldom be invoked" by developing countries (Wall Street Journal, 6/25). Ellen t'Hoen, a spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders, added that the proposals are "needlessly complicated and won't be very workable," noting that the changes will "mandate border controls, unnecessarily burden poor countries and leave them open to legal challenges from drug companies" (Olson New York Times, 6/25).