WTO Officials May Miss Dec. 31 Deadline To Reach Agreement To Give Developing Nations Access to Low-Cost DrugsWorld Trade Organization members may not make a Dec. 31 deadline to craft a plan to allow developing nations access to patented drugs, including antiretrovirals, as drug industry leaders and "poorer" WTO members "seemed to agree" Wednesday that "no deal is better than a bad deal," Reuters Health reports. The attempt to reach consensus on how to amend international patent laws to allow low-cost copies of brand-name drugs in countries facing health epidemics has been a main goal of this round of the Doha free trade talks, according to Reuters Health. While members such as the United States, the European Union and Switzerland -- all homes to large pharmaceutical companies -- call for a series of conditions for such an arrangement, other members, such as some African nations devastated by AIDS, are "demanding wider access" to patented medicines (Reuters Health, 12/12). Since November 2001, when a WTO ministerial working group approved a declaration that states that developing nations can override patent protections to manufacture medicines during public health emergencies, members have been unable to agree on exact terms. The last round of negotiations held last month also stalled. 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 representatives from developing countries have shown "mounting frustration" at the slow pace of the discussion, they appear ready to wait for a well-designed agreement, Reuters Health reports. "If we cannot reach a good agreement, we may be better off sticking with the situation as it is," one unnamed Latin American envoy said. Dr. Harvey Bale, director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, said, "It should be dealt with carefully and if it cannot be dealt with carefully, best to take whatever time is needed" (Reuters Health, 12/12). ACT UP/Paris in a statement criticized both the United States and the European Union for demanding "unnecessary controls" on developing countries and called the actions "intolerable." The release states, "The United States remains inflexible and insists on restricting the use of generics. ... Such a position is a blatant step backwards from U.S. commitments at Doha one year ago." ACT UP/Paris says that France, which "claims to be on the side of developing countries, must react" (ACT UP/Paris release, 12/12).
According to an article in the Australian Financial Review, failure to reach a deal "would undermine the Doha round by fueling suspicion in developing economies that the rich world is not serious about using the negotiations to improve the lot of poor countries" (Davis, Australian Financial Review, 12/13). Bale downplayed this line of thought and said that an agreement was not "crucial" to helping people with AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, adding that "poor health administrations and infrastructure" hinders drugs from reaching those in need. "If we have an agreement, it will not affect the delivery of one single AIDS drug in the world today," Bale said (Reuters Health, 12/12).