WTO Officials Begin Talks to Reach Agreement on Expanded Access to Medicines for Developing NationsWorld Trade Organization officials on Monday at the WTO headquarters in Geneva began meeting to work out a compromise on access to medicines that would maintain patent protection for drug companies while broadening access for developing nations on medicines, such as antiretroviral drugs, the Associated Press reports (Nullis, Associated Press, 11/25). WTO ministers met in Sydney earlier this month and were unable to reach a "definitive agreement" on how to implement a declaration approved in November 2001 by a WTO ministerial working group that states that developing nations can override patent protections to manufacture medicines during public health emergencies. The declaration says that the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, which outlines international patent rules, "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 also states that each WTO member has the right to issue compulsory licenses and the liberty to determine when to issue the licenses (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 11/25). Although WTO officials "general[ly] agre[e]" that the least developed nations should have access to inexpensive generic medications, they have not yet agreed if such expanded access should be granted to "wealthier developing countries" such as South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. In addition, officials have agreed that drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis would be included in the plan but have not yet agreed if drugs to treat diseases such as cancer and diabetes would be included. Health activists, including members of Medicins Sans Frontieres and Oxfam, yesterday conducted demonstrations outside of the WTO building calling for expanded access to drugs. "Rich countries, pushed by the pharmaceutical giants, continue to block any meaningful solution by insisting on unreasonable restrictions to the legitimate right to health of hundreds of millions of poor people," Oxfam said (Associated Press, 11/25).
Maintain Patent Protections, Washington Times Editorial Says
Current WTO draft language "contains legal holes that would allow virtually any country to declare an ailment a 'public health crisis,'" and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick should not "cede ground" in attempting to maintain intellectual property protections, according to a Washington Times editorial. According to the editorial, "wonder drugs" are available because of -- "not in spite of" -- intellectual property protections, and if those protections are removed, "everyone everywhere" would suffer because of reduced incentive to develop potential "cures" for diseases. "In standing firm for patent protections on drugs, Zoellick can protect not only an American industry's interests but the world's interests too," the editorial concludes (Washington Times, 11/26).