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Saturday, 21 December, 2002, 13:21 GMT
US blocks cheap drugs agreement
Baby asleep next to anti-Aids drugs in South Africa
The deal was agreed by 143 countries
The United States has blocked an international agreement to allow poor countries to buy cheap drugs.

One-hundred and forty-three countries stood on the same ground, we were hoping to make that unanimous

Sergio Marchi
Canada's negotiator
This means millions of poor people will still not have access to medicines for diseases such as HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis.

US negotiators say the deal would allow too many drugs patents to be ignored.

Talks have now been rescheduled for February, but the international medical organisation, Medecins Sans Frontieres, told the BBC that there was little chance of them succeeding.

Hopes dashed

The talks, held at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, broke up early on Saturday.

"I have to say, there is no way to sugar-coat this bitter pill. We are disappointed," the Canadian representative, Sergio Marchi said.

Aids drugs
Aids drugs are too expensive for many governments

"One-hundred and forty-three countries stood on the same ground, we were hoping to make that unanimous."

The principle of allowing developing countries access to cheap versions of drugs still protected by patent had been agreed at WTO talks a year ago.

But it is not clear if that principle can be turned into a detailed agreement that all sides are happy with.

Under current rules, countries are required to respect drugs patents for 20 years.

Critics say this delays the production of much cheaper generic medicines, which are needed in developing countries because patients and health services cannot afford the more expensive versions.

The WTO talks are aimed at relaxing the rules on intellectual property rights to enable countries in need to import cheaper versions of essential drugs.

While the talks have dragged on through the year, the problem of HIV/Aids has grown worse.

Figures released by the United Nations last month showed that more than 40 million people are now living with the disease.

Consensus not possible

The United States said the proposed deal would mean that illnesses that are not infectious, such as diabetes and asthma, could also be treated with cheap, generic drugs.

This is not just a failure of the Geneva talks, but of two years of negotiations

Medecins Sans Frontieres
The US negotiator, Linnet Deily, said her country "could not meet the consensus on the issue".

In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 30 million people are estimated to be infected with the HIV/Aids virus.

African negotiators say the fears expressed by the United States are unfounded.

"Any attempt to redefine this declaration will unravel the careful balance achieved on many issues," Kenyan negotiator Amina Chawahir Mohamed told the Geneva meeting, the AFP news agency reports.

The medical organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) told BBC News Online that it was now "time to find solutions outside the WTO".

"If there had been any flexibility to reach an agreement, the United States would have shown that flexibility.

"This is not just a failure of the Geneva talks, but of two years of negotiations," Ellen 'pHoen said.

She said individual countries should now go ahead and allow their own pharmaceutical industries to export to other countries that need cheaper drugs.

MSF argues that that is already allowed for under the 1994 agreement brokered by the World Trade Organisation.

Such moves would almost certainly trigger disputes with the US and major western drugs companies which the WTO would have to settle.


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21 Dec 02 | Health
26 Nov 02 | Health
13 Nov 01 | Business
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