Medicines for the Third World: A Deal in Doha

True Impact of Changes Won´t Be Known for Years

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DOHA, Qatar, NOV. 24, 2001 (Zenit.org).- One of the positive results of the recent World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting was the decision to loosen patent laws on medicines. As the Financial Times explained Nov. 15, this will gives poor countries the right under WTO rules to override patents in the interests of public health.



The declaration, approved by the ministers gathered in Doha, Qatar, was widely seen as a victory for developing countries that united behind the issue.

Under the agreement, countries will be able to issue "compulsory licenses," which effectively require a patent-holding company to share its invention with a rival, the New York Times explained Nov. 16. The agreement gives countries "the freedom to determine the grounds upon which such licenses are granted," particularly for public health crises such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Brazil, India and the African nations demanded changes in the rules on intellectual property rights, often referred to as TRIPS (trade-related aspects of intellectual property), concerning drug patents.

Oxfam, the England-based development group which campaigns against high-priced drugs, said the accord was "a big step forward in the battle for affordable medicines." Medécins sans Frontières said the decision would dramatically reduce the threat of punitive action against countries using compulsory licensing to meet health needs.

Drug companies and First World nations agreed to loosen property rights on pharmaceuticals because they feared that otherwise other countries would not have been prepared to accept lower trade barriers for their exports, according to a report Nov. 16 in the Washington Post.

As well, a successful conclusion to the Doha meeting was important in order to send a signal of international cooperation during a time of global political and economic trouble.

However, according to the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 15, while the drug companies had fought hard to avoid any concessions, once the deal was done, the firms insisted nothing substantial had changed.

"The industry wanted to make sure that the final language of this declaration did not expand or diminish the rights and obligations within" world trade agreements, said Alan Holmer, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry´s trade group. "We are now satisfied that the language does not."

Henry McKinnell, chief executive and chairman of Pfizer Inc., said the battle in Doha is a public-relations campaign by Indian generic-drug manufacturers seeking to retain their rights to copy drug makers´ discoveries. "[The Indian companies] make Napster look good," said McKinnell. Napster, an online music-swapping service, was found by a federal court to have illegally contributed to infringement of record labels´ copyrights.

The Wall Street Journal quoted analysts who said the true effect of the changes to trade rules won´t be known for years when countries begin deciding where to draw the line between drugs that are desperately needed to meet substantial health threats and those that are just good for people.

Debate over patents

Before the WTO meeting began, a lively debate was carried out between groups in favor and against relaxing patent laws. The Financial Times on Nov. 7 published two points of view on the matter.

On one side was by Dr. Harvey Bale Jr., director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations and President of the Pharmaceutical Security Institute.

Bale argued that patent laws provide essential protection that enables expensive research to be carried out in the development of new therapies and vaccines for people suffering from thousands of deadly and debilitating infectious and non-infectious diseases.

If pharmaceutical companies are assured that their inventions are secure from theft, they will devote more people and funds to discovering and developing new biomedical inventions to treat and prevent currently diseases, Bale maintained.

He also pointed out that solving the medical problems of poor countries is more complicated than just reforming patent laws. The real obstacles to be overcome, he said, include poverty, lack of access to sufficient international financial assistance, the absence of trained medical personnel, lack of diagnostic equipment and a lack of effective political leadership to address health as a priority.

The contrary opinion was expressed by Sophia Tickell of Oxfam. She accepted the importance of patents, in rich countries, and the need to reward innovation. But Tickell went on to observe that in developing countries, 37,000 people each day die of preventable or treatable diseases. Relaxing patent laws brings down prices and will help poor governments to begin to meet public health provision needs.

Moreover, the Oxfam representative explained that by allowing governments to buy generic medicines from local manufacturers, countries can save scarce foreign exchange.

Poor countries simply do not have the same capacity as rich to absorb the higher prices associated with patenting, concluded Tickell.

Third World plight

As the Financial Times observed Nov. 16, the new WTO rules will not remove all obstacles for poorer countries. The document has left undecided the question of whether developing countries can import cheap copies of patented drugs from third countries.

Todd Dickinson, a former director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and now a partner at law firm Howrey Simon Arnold & White, said: "It appears to only benefit countries with their own generic-drug industries at the moment."

The council overseeing intellectual property rights has been given until the end of next year to find a solution to the question of how countries without local drugs industries can benefit from the relaxation of patent laws.

Apart from the question of patents, Third World countries have not received much help. During last weekend´s meeting held by the Group of 20 nations, the world´s richest countries and key emerging economies, there was much talk but no action on how to ease the plight of the world´s poorest people, Reuters reported Nov. 18.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O´Neill pressed his idea that rich countries should give poor countries grants rather that loans. But Clare Short, Britain´s development minister, dismissed the proposal as "a crazy idea."

For his part, International Monetary Fund chief Horst Koehler bluntly accusing rich nations of being selfish. "There is a major problem in the fight against poverty and this is the selfishness of the advanced countries," he said.

Meanwhile, overseas development aid hit its lowest level on record last year. Some fear that poor countries will get little help as rich nations now face the threat of recession in their own countries.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard University and chairman of the commission on macroeconomics and health of the World Health Organization, weighed in on the debate Nov. 21 in the pages of the Washington Post.

In recent years U.S. foreign assistance programs have "essentially collapsed," except in the Middle East, pointed out Sachs. When aid is measured as a share of national income, the United States now ranks second from last among donors.

The Marshall Plan cost the United States more than 2% of gross national product for several years, explained the Harvard economist. But now the U.S. aid budget is less than one-tenth of 1% of GNP. Just increasing this to two-tenths of 1% would provide an extra $10 billion to devote to disease control, primary education, clean water and other vital needs. The world´s poor can only hope someone is listening.