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Tuesday, 13 November, 2001, 10:16 GMT
WTO confirms drugs deal
Scientist holding pill
Poor countries want cheaper generic drugs to save lives
Ben Brown

Trade negotiators at the world trade talks in Doha have reached broad agreement on a deal to ensure that poor countries have access to medicines.

Ministers are expected to approve a text later on Tuesday relating to the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) intellectual property rights accord, known as TRIPS.

The text will state that TRIPS "can and should be interpreted and implemented in a manner supportive of WTO members' rights to protect public health and in particular to ensure access to medicines for all".

Senior US trade officials said that "great progress" had been made on the health issue, and the success demonstrated to developing countries that the WTO was "part of the solution, not part of the problem".

But they argued the text was a political statement that did not have legal force.

UK Trade Minister Patricia Hewitt told the BBC that the deal would "make it easier to get agreement on outstanding issues".

She also said it was "very helpful that we have achieved a breakthrough early" as the talks aimed at launching a new trade round enter their final day.

Different views

Developing countries had opposed the stance taken by the United States and Switzerland on TRIPS.

The developing countries demand the right to override patents and have open access to cheaper generic drugs in times of a health crisis.

Many developing countries, such as South Africa and Brazil, say they cannot afford the cost of expensive drugs needed to treat diseases like Aids and malaria.

Earlier in the year, the US brought a case against Brazil to the WTO because of its plans to manufacture anti-Aids drugs cheaply.

The case was later dropped.

Campaigners hail deal

Oxfam's Ian Bray told the BBC that the Doha deal was better than anyone could have hoped for a year ago.

However, Oxfam expressed disappointment no agreement has been reached on the issue of compulsory licensing in third countries.

This allows countries with no drugs industry to arrange cheap production abroad.

But the pharmaceutical industry expressed concern that the "ambiguity" of the deal could make companies reluctant to engage in Aids research.

"It is going to cause a certain amount of confusion among people who read this as to what it actually means," said International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations director general Harvey Bale.

Boost for talks

With just one day to go, prospects for launching a new trade round are improving.

The deal on cheap access to medicines, which developing countries feel deeply about, will help smooth the way for agreement on other difficult issues.

Trade ministers want to start a fresh round of talks to help boost the world trading system at a time when economic growth is faltering and international cooperation has moved up the agenda following the terrorist attacks on the US.

Problems still lie ahead on agriculture, where the EU is refusing to agree on the goal of phasing out agriculture subsidies.

There are also difficulties on textiles, where the US may have difficulty in agreeing to accelerate textile and clothing imports from developing countries.

But the EU already appears to be conceding defeat on a key part of its environmental agenda.

UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher told the BBC that introducing the so-called "precautionary principle" into trade legislation was proving too controversial and may have to be abandoned.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Andrew Walker
"Patented medicines was a hugely controversial issue ahead of this meeting"
See also:

13 Nov 01 | Business
Pressure mounts on trade talks
12 Nov 01 | Business
Luxury and squalor in Doha
25 Oct 01 | Business
Patent row brews ahead of WTO summit
24 Oct 01 | Business
US and Bayer settle anthrax row
08 Oct 01 | Business
African firm wins Aids drug permit
20 Jun 01 | Business
WTO to tackle high medicine costs
09 Nov 01 | Health
Trade rules and cheap drugs
23 Mar 01 | Business
Health brings wealth
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