Sunday, August 31, 2003

Poor Nations Can Purchase Cheap Drugs Under Accord

The WTO finally comes to an agreement on the sale of generic versions of patented drugs to poor countries.

WASHINGTON, Aug. 30 — The World Trade Organization agreed today to give poor nations greater access to inexpensive life-saving medicine by altering international trade rules.

After several days of nonstop negotiations and speeches, the trade organization reached unanimous agreement this morning, just as its meeting was concluding, after speeches by several African delegates who said such an agreement could save millions of lives.

Under the accord, poor countries will be able to import generic versions of expensive patented medicines, buying them from countries like India and Brazil without running afoul of trade laws protecting patent rights.

African countries and their supporters in nonprofit health groups have been campaigning for such an agreement for years, saying that moral and political arguments outweigh commercial considerations in the face of epidemics like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

"This will absolutely save millions of lives that would be lost without it," said Faizel Ismail, South Africa's permanent representative at the World Trade Organization, in an interview from Geneva.

The breakthrough came earlier this week when the United States agreed to the original proposal it had rejected last December.

Backed by the powerful American pharmaceutical lobby, the Bush administration had prevented the trade organization from adopting the measure, saying it should be restricted to a handful of diseases and limited to certain countries. The European Union and Switzerland, the other two delegations representing advanced pharmaceutical companies, had accepted the proposal.

Nations from the developing world pointed out that without an agreement, there was little hope for success at new talks in the current trade round scheduled to begin in Cancun, Mexico, in September.

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The United States, however, only agreed to the accord after it won acceptance of an additional statement setting out measures to ensure that countries would not take advantage of it and reap commercial profits rather than meet public health needs.

Robert B. Zoellick, the United States trade representative, said in a statement that the Bush administration, "working with other W.T.O. members and our pharmaceutical industry, has strived to bridge the many differences and sought to develop with others constructive ideas about how to move forward."

Several public health groups said, though, that the new statement essentially doomed the accord by encasing it with enough bureaucratic red tape to discourage poor nations from importing the drugs.

"Today's deal was designed to offer comfort to the U.S. and the Western pharmaceutical industry," said Ellen 't Hoen, of Doctors Without Borders, in a statement released from Paris. "Unfortunately, it offers little comfort for poor patients. Global patent rules will continue to drive up the price of medicines."

One can't help feeling a little irritated by statements like those made by Ellen 't Hoen. Doesn't she realize that pharmaceutical companies aren't charities? It makes economic sense to allow poor countries to import generic copies of patented drugs, as the market for the real thing would have been essentially nonexistent in any case, but any agreement that failed to restrict the possibility of imports into more prosperous markets would be a terrible thing.

Drug development is an extremely expensive, lengthy and risky exercise, and trade agreements that undermine the markets for new drugs, however well-motivated they may be, act as a disincentive to investment in therapies. Sure, one may get the benefit of cheap drugs in the here and now, but this benefit only seems worthwhile if one believes that no new drugs will ever be necessary. Given the rapid evolutionary rates of most bacterial and viral pathogens, such a conviction is simply the height of stupidity.