WTO Talks Fail To Reach Agreement on Draft Proposal To Improve Access to Low-Cost Medicines for Developing CountriesWorld Trade Organization negotiators on Friday failed to reach an agreement on giving developing countries that do not have the ability to domestically produce medicines the right to import low-cost generic drugs, as the United States "insisted" that the deal should apply only to drugs used to treat certain infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, the Washington Post reports. Some representatives of developing countries blamed the United States "for scuttling the accord almost single-handedly," according to the Post (Blustein, Washington Post, 12/21). "The United States has announced it cannot join the consensus," Brazilian representative Antonio de Aguiar Patriota said after the impasse was declared shortly before the WTO self-imposed deadline of midnight on Friday. The AP/Las Vegas Sun reports that Patriota earlier told reporters that the United States was the only country out of 144 member nations that did not support the draft text (Koppel, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 12/20). The negotiations center around the November 2001 Doha declaration, which states that WTO member nations can ignore pharmaceutical patents and domestically produce generic drugs in cases of public health emergencies (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/18). However, drugs produced under such "compulsory licensing" agreements were meant only to be used domestically and not exported, leaving developing countries without a pharmaceutical industry unable to benefit from the declaration because they could neither make drugs nor import them (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 12/20). The United States, the only country to openly refuse to accept the draft agreement, proposed adding a footnote to the final document stating which diseases would be covered. In addition to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, the U.S. proposal included 15 "mostly tropical diseases" that affected people who live on continents like Africa.
"Failure to meet the deadlines in these negotiations has been quite disappointing," WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi said, adding, "These issues are of great importance not only to developing countries but to the organization itself, and to the broader trade negotiations that are part of the Doha Development Agenda" (Xinhua News Agency, 12/21). U.S. negotiator Linnet Deily said that the United States "could not meet the consensus on the issue." According to BBC News, the United States said that the proposed agreement could give developing countries the right to import drugs for diseases that are not infectious, including diabetes and asthma (BBC News, 12/21). "If you're going to permit people to import drugs to treat cancer, diabetes and heart disease, what are you going to do when someone says, I want Viagra on the list? ... Where do you draw the line? We decided to draw it at the drugs for the major epidemics plaguing the developing world," a U.S. trade official said. However, the deans of several U.S. schools of public health in a letter sent to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick on Thursday wrote, "While there is no doubt that (HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria) are ravaging developing countries, they cannot be considered the sole public health threats in poor regions" (Washington Post, 12/21). In addition, students from 55 colleges and universities around the United States have mailed 15,000 hand-signed postcards to the U.S. trade representative's office in Washington, D.C., protesting the United States' actions at the trade talks (International Trade and Access to Medicines Student Group release, 12/20). African negotiators said that the United States' fears that developing countries would import drugs to treat many different conditions were "unfounded." Ellen 't Hoen of Medicins San Frontieres said that individual countries should allow their pharmaceutical industries to produce and export generic drugs to other countries, actions that MSF says are already legal under the WTO's 1994 Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement and that BBC News reports "would almost certainly trigger disputes" (BBC News, 12/21).
The U.S. trade representative's office on Friday released a statement promising that the United States would not file complaints with the WTO against developing countries that import generic drugs to combat major epidemics of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria and cholera, effectively implementing "the spirit" of the Doha declaration (Washington Post, 12/21). "We urge others to join us in the moratorium to help poor countries get access to emergency life-saving drugs," Zoellick said. The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. trade officials had been working on the interim plan during the last week of negotiations, as they became aware that the United States was "in the unenviable position of being the sole obstacle to an agreement seen by many as a humanitarian imperative." According to the Journal, "U.S. officials believe they have regained some of the moral high ground they knew they had appeared to lose Friday." A senior U.S. trade official said, "We've done our part. If others will do that, we'll have solved the problem" (Phillips, Wall Street Journal, 12/23).
According to the Post, the impasse "threatens to undo much of the goodwill the Bush administration generated with developing countries and AIDS activists on the drug patent issue" after the meeting in Doha, Qatar, last year (Washington Post, 12/21). According to analysts, the failure to meet the deadline this week to conclude the year-long talks could "seriously jeopardize" the current round of talks, which faces a series of tight deadlines in early 2003 (Xinhua News Agency, 12/21). The AP/Las Vegas Sun reports that developing countries are unlikely to agree on other issues until the drug patent situation is resolved (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 12/20). Delegates agreed to try to continue to reach a compromise prior to reporting to the WTO General Council at its next two-day meeting, which is scheduled to begin Feb. 10, 2003 (Xinhua News Agency, 12/21).