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Sunday, 24 November, 2002, 00:23 GMT
Global drugs deal urged
WTO Doha conference
The drugs deal was first proposed in Doha last year
Millions of people in the developing world will miss out on life-saving drugs if governments fail to strike a deal on cheap medicines, experts have warned.

The World Trade Organisation is hoping to secure an agreement to relax the rules on drug patents as part of the current round of international talks.

However, trade ministers have so far failed to reach agreement after almost a year of negotiations.


Some 98% of the medicines that people in poor countries need are not actually patented. Patents are not the issue

Harvey Bale, IFPMA
Experts have warned that unless a deal is struck in the coming weeks then many people will continue to miss out on vaccines and other life-saving treatment.

Under the current rules, countries are required to respect patents for 20 years. This prevents companies from developing similar drugs and selling them more cheaply.

Poorest affected

However, countries in the developing world and some non-governmental organisations say this policy deprives some of the world's poorest people of essential medicines.

Charities say governments are unable to afford to buy the drugs at the prices set by the pharmaceutical companies.

They want any WTO agreement to include measures which will allow generic and cheaper drugs to be exported and imported by poorer countries.

They want the deal to cover all medicines, including vaccines and drugs for treating diseases like HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

There are fears that the issue will be fudged.

Some of the poorest people in the world don't have access to drugs
The UK-based charity Oxfam has 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.

Ruth Mayne, Oxfam's policy advisory, said: "Blame lies with some of the rich countries which are defending the profits of the big drugs companies.

"The EU has presented itself as an honest broker but in fact its proposals are also restrictive.

"Oxfam wants the EU to get off the fence and to back a solution that will enable developing countries to access the cheapest possible medicines."

But the pharmaceutical industry has said that the focus on drug patents is wrong.

Harvey Bale, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, said: "Some 98% of the medicines that people in poor countries need are not actually patented. Patents are not the issue."

Mr Bale said pharmaceutical companies supported the idea of selling discounted drugs to developing countries.

But he added: "The richer countries have to put up more funds so that the poorer countries can afford to buy these drugs in the first place."


Everybody knows this is a good thing

John Sulston
Professor Amartya Sen, a master of Trinity College and an honorary advisor to Oxfam, called for incentives for companies to sell drugs cheaply to developing countries.

"We need to develop incentives," he said. "This could be geared towards those drugs that are most in need.

"These medicines are tremendously needed but there are no incentives for pharmaceutical companies."

Public support

John Sulston, of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, suggested there was broad public support for making cheaper medicines available to people living in the developing world.

"Everybody knows this is a good thing," he said. "Most people would like to see the world moving towards a more globally just situation."


This could be a difference between life and death

Dr Carlos Correa
Dr Carlos Correa, a member of the UK government's independent commission on intellectual property rights, said there was no easy solution to the problem.

"I am not really confident that there will be agreement on this before the end of the year. The issue will continue to be on the agenda and this will be of very measurable frustration for developing countries."

He added: "The simplest and most effective solution would be to allow any country to produce and export generic drugs without restrictions. But we need a clear legal framework.

"This could be a difference between life and death."


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15 Nov 01 | Business
09 Nov 01 | Health
25 Oct 01 | Business
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