WTO patent rules will still deny medicines to the poor

27 August 2003

After two years of intense wrangling, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) appears to have reached an agreement on drug patents.

The deal was apparently brokered tonight at an informal meeting and could be officially confirmed tomorrow morning. If this deal is confirmed, the result would be a severe disappointment, says international agency, Oxfam.

It was hoped that the deal would secure developing countries greater access to low-cost copies of medicines. But thanks to the intransigence of the US and pharmaceutical giants, poor countries would still not have the same legal rights to affordable medicines as industrialised countries.

Oxfam's Head of Advocacy in Geneva, Celine Charveriat said: "If agreed by the WTO, developed countries will trumpet this change to WTO patent rules as a big concession, but the proposed deal is largely cosmetic and will not make a significant difference to the millions of sick people who die unnecessarily in the Third World every year.'

Developing countries successfully stopped the US and the pharmaceutical lobby from excluding many diseases from the deal - an important achievement. However, the proposed deal still contains serious flaws. No matter how desperate the health need, a developing country without the capacity to produce a needed drug (which is virtually all of them) will have to ask another government to suspend the relevant patent and license a local company to produce and export it. Few countries, if any, will be prepared to help other countries in this way, as it would provoke retaliation by the US which fiercely defends the commercial interests of the pharmaceutical corporations.

Furthermore, the agreement is wrapped in so much red tape that it becomes largely unworkable - it amends a clause of only 20 words, yet runs to more than seven whole pages. In practice, most poor countries will end up paying the high price for patented medicines or, most probably, doing without.

The change in patent rules was promised by the WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha in 2001 in its landmark Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health.

Charveriat added: "If confirmed, the deal would be a betrayal of the pledge made in the Doha Declaration to put public health before patent rights. It is profoundly unfair to create fresh legal obstacles for developing countries trying to obtain affordable generic medicines, purely in the interests of an industry that in the US alone made US$37 billion in profit last year. This decision would raise questions about who really makes policy in the WTO, and is a bad omen for the upcoming WTO summit in Cancun'.

The international agency insisted that if the deal goes ahead it would not put a stop to efforts by developing countries and pressure groups to build on the important gains of recent years, such as the Doha Declaration and the reductions in the price of AIDS drugs. Indeed, this outcome would strengthen the need for a thorough revision of the TRIPS Agreement with a view to taking developing countries out of the TRIPS straightjacket altogether.


For more information please contact Amy Barry in Oxfam's press office on 0044-7980664397 or abarry@oxfam.org.uk or Celine Charveriat in the Geneva office at 0041-79-668-6477.

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