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Saturday, 21 December, 2002, 13:19 GMT
Trade rules and cheap drugs
Access to drugs is a problem in many countries
Access to drugs is a problem in many countries
Negotiators at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have failed to meet a deadline to reach a deal on making sure poorer countries have access to cheap drugs.

BBC News Online looks at why agreement is so hard to reach.

Last year WTO talks in the Qatari capital, Doha, reached agreement on the principle of allowing poorer countries access to cheap medicines.

But repeated efforts to turn that into a detailed, signed agreement, have failed.

The Doha talks were the result of complaints by developing countries that they could not afford expensive drugs developed by western companies to treat diseases such as HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.

The debate centred on an agreement made by countries in the WTO, known as the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of International Property Rights - or Trips.

It was signed in 1994, and is now binding on 144 countries.

Production delayed

Critics, including developing countries themselves and international aid organisations, said the main flaw of Trips was that it asked all countries, whether rich or poor, to grant 20 years' patent protection in all fields of technology, including new medicines.

This, they argued, delayed the production of much cheaper generic medicines, which are needed in developing countries because patients and health services cannot afford the more expensive versions.

Cheaper drugs could be delayed by up to 10 years longer than in the past.

During that period, poorer countries could pay at least three times what they would have paid if generic versions were available, argued aid agencies such as Oxfam.

In April, 2001, campaigners for cheaper medication for developing countries welcomed a climb-down from 39 pharmaceutical companies contesting a South African law that aimed at providing cheaper versions of branded Aids drugs to patients in the country.

Then in November of last year came the Doha agreement.

Lack of capacity It said the 1994 Trips agreement "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".

So, the idea was that poor countries would not be subject to the same patent protection that makes brand-name drugs so expensive in the West.

But few poor countries - with the exception of India and Brazil - have the capacity to make their own medicines.

Negotiations became bogged down over the question of under what circumstances the larger developing countries could export their cheaper medicines to others.

The UK-based charity Oxfam accused countries like the United States of holding up a deal and of trying to protect the interests of the pharmaceutical industry.

It has also accused the European Union of failing to do enough to tackle the issue.

The latest efforts to resolve the issue broke down in Geneva on 21 December.

One-hundred and forty-three countries reached detailed agreement.

But the United States refused to sign up.

It says the deal would allow too much scope for patent rules to be avoided on a wide range of illnesses.

The talks are due to resume in February.

But some critics say they are doomed to failure and that the WTO cannot resolve the issue.






See also:

21 Dec 02 | Health
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