Disagreement greets a new deal on patent protection and generic drugs for poor countries

Graham McKerrow, HIV i-Base

Two years after being told – in paragraph six of the 2001 Doha Declaration – to find a solution to the conflicting interests of pharmaceutical companies and the needs of poor people requiring medicine in developing countries, the World Trade Organisation reached agreement in Geneva on 30 August to allow developing countries to import cheap, generic drugs. Or, they sold the poor down the river to protect the patents and profits of the rich western pharmaceutical companies. Take you choice.

While some hailed the agreement as providing new opportunities for developing countries to distribute generic drugs, several NGOs said the agreement bound generic drugs in so much red tape that it was effectively unworkable.

Supachai Panitchpakdi, the director general of the WTO told journalists: “This is an historic agreement for the WTO.” The Lancet reported that the agreement “will make it easier for poor countries to import cut-price generic drugs made under compulsory licensing.”

Kenyan and South African ambassadors at the meeting also welcomed the agreement, but leading NGOs criticised it saying it protected the multinational pharmaceuticals and the high prices of their products and so would continue to keep treatment from people who need it.

Compulsory licences allow a government to permit the production of generic drugs without the consent of the patent holder. The WTO agreed to waive the rule that compulsory licences must be for the domestic market of that country, a rule that prevented generic drugs being exported to other nations. As most poor countries are too poor to manufacture medicines for their population, this rule has deprived millions of people of the treatment they need. Poor nations need to be able to import generic drugs from countries where they are produced, such as India and Brazil.

The US worked hard to protect the rights of the pharmaceutical giants and in response to American demands only the poorest countries can benefit from the new agreement. Middle income countries like Mexico and South Korea had to promise not to use compulsory licences except in times of national emergency.

The US trade representative Robert Zoellick told the Lancet that the agreement succeeded in “striking the right balance between addressing the needs of the poorest countries while ensuring intellectual property protections that foster the future development of lifesaving drugs”.

The deal was criticised by NGOs working in the field who said the regulations surrounding the implementation of compulsory licences made them unworkable. Médecins Sans Frontières and Oxfam issued a joint statement saying it would do little to cut the prices of medicines. “Today’s deal was designed to offer comfort to the US and the Western pharmaceutical industry,” said Ellen ’t Hoen of MSF. “Unfortunately, it offers little comfort for poor patients. Global patent rules will continue to drive up the price of medicines.”

Céline Charveriat of Oxfam said the new agreement included a “burdensome system” of regulation that would not help the production of generic drugs, and that developing countries would have little alternative to the high prices and long-term monopolies of brand-name medicines.

Below Mauro Guarinieri, Chair of the European AIDS Treatment Group, looks at the latest deal and examines its shortcomings.

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