Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report Summarizes Editorials, Opinion Pieces on WTO Agreement on Access to Generic Drugs
Several newspapers this week published editorials and opinion pieces on the World Trade Organization agreement reached on Saturday to allow developing countries to import generic versions of patented medicines from countries that produce the generic drugs without violating patent rights. WTO talks on generic drug access for poor nations had been stalled since Dec. 31, 2002, when members missed a deadline to reach an agreement. In February, U.S. negotiators refused to sign a deal under the Doha declaration to allow developing nations to override patent protections to produce or import generic versions of drugs to combat public health epidemics. The policy agreed to on Saturday allows a country to issue a "compulsory license" to import generic drugs if it confirms that it "has insufficient or no manufacturing capacities in the pharmaceutical sector for the product(s) in question." A chairman's statement attached to the agreement says that the system "should be used in the good faith to protect public health and ... not be an instrument to pursue industrial or commercial policy objectives." In addition, the chairman's statement says that "all reasonable measures," such as the use of special packaging and different drug coloring, should be made to prevent the reimportation of generic drugs into wealthy countries (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 9/2). Summaries of the editorials and opinion pieces follows.
Australian: While the WTO agreement is "welcome, if long overdue, ... [it] cannot stop the imminent AIDS pandemic," an Australian editorial says. The patent concessions need to be augmented by increased health education and infrastructure and the "political will to do something about the problem," the editorial says, concluding that the agreement "means governments of even the poorest nations cannot claim they are powerless to reduce the speed and virulence with which [AIDS] kills" (Australian, 9/4).
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Not everyone was happy with the WTO agreement, but "[h]olding out for the perfect pact would have been unconscionable" and could have jeopardized the next round of trade talks in Cancun, Mexico, a Journal Sentinel editorial says. The agreement will help to prevent the "senseless deaths" of "[m]illions of people in poor countries in Africa and elsewhere," the editorial says (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 8/31).
Montreal Gazette: This "landmark trade decision ... demonstrates that globalization can be made to work to the benefit of everyone if the political will is there," a Gazette editorial says. However, in order for the agreement to be properly implemented, "rich states that host multinational pharmaceutical firms will need to be generous in their interpretation of what constitutes a public health emergency ... and poorer countries will have to take seriously the ban on re-export of budget drugs," the editorial says. In addition, the distribution network for drugs in Africa must be improved, and South African President Thabo Mbeki, who until now has refused to support the distribution of antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals, will have "to be persuaded that the world has made him an offer he can't refuse," the editorial says (Montreal Gazette, 9/3).
Sowetan: "In the African context," the responsibility for the success of the agreement "resides principally with South Africa, which is one of the few [countries] which have the capacity to produce enough generic medicines for both domestic and export needs" a Sowetan editorial says. South Africa should therefore amend local patent laws and take "full advantage" of the agreement, reducing costs and increasing drug accessibility both within the country and throughout Africa, the editorial says. Unless South Africa does so, the new agreement "could only make access for poorer countries more difficult than it already is," the editorial concludes (Sowetan, 9/2).
- Robert Goldberg: While "[p]atents have rarely been a barrier to obtaining or paying for medicines in poor countries, ... accelerated access to cutting-edge medicines in the poorest countries will help," Goldberg, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and director of the institute's Center for Medical Progress, writes in a Washington Times opinion piece. However, "so-called humanitarian groups like Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres" are on an "ideological crusade to undermine America's free market in drug development," Goldberg says. If they succeed, "American consumers will pay even more to subsidize new drugs for Europeans and other wealthy nations ... [and] production of essential medicines will slow to a trickle as profits plunge," Goldberg says, concluding that the U.S. government should encourage "the entire WTO to ratify an agreement that protects our consumers and promises better health in developing countries in the years ahead" (Goldberg, Washington Times, 9/2).
- Johann Hari: "[T]he U.S. government in the past week has behaved in a way that really will kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people" by insisting on an "elephant-sized clause" in the WTO agreement over access to generic drugs, Hari, a columnist for London's Independent, writes in an opinion piece in that newspaper. This "non-reform" of patent laws will not really be a solution to the drug access problem because, as Oxfam says, it is unlikely that any country will agree to export drugs to developing countries for fear that the U.S. government would "retaliate ruthlessly on behalf of its paymasters in Big Pharma," Hari says. "As Africans lie dying from AIDS while mountains of treatments sit unused in warehouses across the world, they would be entirely justified in rejecting" the whole WTO trade system because it "asks so much of them but gives nothing back," Hari concludes (Hari, Independent, 9/3).