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Friday, 15 November, 2002, 11:31 GMT
Aids drug deal 'within reach'
African Aids patient
Two thirds of the world's HIV sufferers are African
A deal to open up poor countries' access to cheap drugs looks within reach in Australia, boosting the fight against Aids and a range of other killer diseases.

Trade ministers have given themselves till 31 December to find a compromise deal allowing developing countries to make generic copies of patented drugs and export them.

Now, said Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile at a World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting in Sydney, the end is in sight.

"We've got a clear deadline, it is in sight and the outcome is in sight," he said.

"This is not an economic issue, this is a moral obligation that needs to be undertaken by the developed world."

Far apart

The breakthrough overshadowed the heavy security and loud protests which have now become part of the trade talks process.

The big problem in reaching a deal to date is that the agendas of the Western drug companies and those of poorer states are radically at odds.

For the drug giants, preserving their patents and the high prices their drugs can command is the priority.

Indeed, Swiss company Roche was accused on Friday of inflating the cost of its proprietary Aids drug Viracept to poor countries, despite having promised to cut it.

According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, the company charges more for Viracept in Guatemala and the Ukraine, for instance, than in Switzerland itself, while even elsewhere its discounts are much less generous than those of some other big drugmakers.

Life or death

But for countries in Africa and Asia where sometimes as much as a quarter of the population is HIV positive, or where TB is rampant, those prices make treatment impossible.

And that risks condemning the countries concerned to social and economic catastrophe.

A previous deal allowed countries to make generic copies in times of medical crisis - although the drug companies, with the assistance of their home governments, quibbled over what constituted a "crisis".

But exports were banned, spelling doom for countries without a pharmaceuticals industry.

Getting closer

The devil of the new deal will be in the detail, which has still to be settled.

It looks likely, for instance, that it will be limited to just Aids, TB and malaria, although developing countries wanted other diseases like cancer and diabetes included.

And it remains to be seen whether the terms for export of generic drugs, vital for the many smaller developing states facing disaster thanks to Aids, will be free enough to make a real difference.

Till now, the opposition from the richer countries to opening up the market has been implacable, despite the dire straits in which their poorer neighbours find themselves.

But the trade talks which are meant to be complete by 2005 are bogged down in arguments over agriculture, as Europe - and to a lesser extent Japan and the US - refuse to make significant concessions on their massive farm subsidies.

Giving ground on the drug talks, said WTO director general Supachai Panitchpakdi, could help persuade developing countries that the West's commitment to the so-called "development round" of talks is genuine.

The BBC's Fiona Werge
"For the demonstrators this agreement falls short"
Arancha Gonzales, Pascal Lamy's spokeswoman
"We are ready to put in place everything necessary to make this work"
The BBC's Dominic Hughes
"After the first session of talks a buoyant Australian trade minister declared an agreement was close"

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See also:

14 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
10 Nov 02 | Business
21 Oct 02 | Business
03 Oct 02 | Europe
24 Sep 02 | Africa
30 Jan 02 | Business
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