- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

The U.S. drug industry is recasting its position on a global trade agreement that would give poor countries access to generic drugs while protecting company investments in name-brand pharmaceuticals.

In December U.S. pharmaceutical firms pushed the Bush administration to reject a plan that would formally allow poor countries to waive patents and use generic drugs when treating infectious epidemics. The impasse caused World Trade Organization negotiations to miss an important deadline and made the United States the lone holdout on a potential deal.

“We’re trying to find ways to make sure the poorest people in the world have access to medicines. We’re trying to work with [U.S. Trade Representative Robert B.] Zoellick in negotiations to see if there can be some kind of compromise to achieve that goal,” said Mark Grayson, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a Washington-based trade association that represents companies such as Eli Lilly, Merck and Pfizer.

An agreement regarding drug patents would be a breakthrough for negotiators working on a round of trade talks at the WTO.

Mr. Zoellick said he has been “having a lot of conversations with pharmaceutical companies” and was “struck by the interest of all of them … to try to resolve this problem.” But he played down prospects for quick resolution.

“This has been a difficult problem, so I don’t mean to suggest that it’s on its way to imminent solution,” he said last week at a press conference.

The negotiations last year stumbled over interpretation of rules that would allow poor countries to manufacture or import generic drugs to treat public health crises.

The United States and other nations with strong pharmaceutical industries resisted a wide interpretation of rules.

In the end the U.S. position insisted on limiting the waiver to HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and infectious epidemics of comparable gravity.

Developing countries wanted to avoid naming specific diseases and maintain more flexibility.

A U.S. trade official, who asked not to be named, said the pharmaceutical industry is exploring ideas that would allow a compromise.

Officially there has been no change in the U.S. position, but the official confirmed that “it’s not going to be done without opening the scope of diseases.”

“They understand the situation, and they’re trying to come up with creative ways to deal with the problems … and deal with legitimate concerns about access to medicine while also providing safeguards that the system will not be abused,” the source said.

Pharmaceutical companies are considering compromises on the scope of diseases, which countries can receive waivers and the definition of public health crises, Mr. Grayson said.

“I think we’ve always been trying to work with a number of countries to come up with suggestions to make it work,” Mr. Grayson said.

The pharmaceuticals issue is especially sensitive in the current round of WTO negotiations, which are supposed to help developing countries gain a foothold in the world economy.

“This issue has to be resolved, not because it’s an important trade component, but because it’s an important signal to developing countries that the trading community cares about the least developed countries and cares about people that have no access to medicine,” Youssef Boutros-Ghali, Egypt’s minister of foreign trade, said last week in Washington.

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