- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001

The World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization today announce an effort to bring inexpensive AIDS drugs to poor Africans and others now that major pharmaceutical companies are backing away from the fight over patent rights and profits.

The WHO and WTO are to hold their first meeting April 8-11 in Hosbjor, Norway, aimed at bringing lifesaving AIDS medication to the world's poor.

"The world is ready to move on from squabbling about patent issues," said Dr. Nils Daulaire, head of the Global Health Council that is organizing the meeting on "Differential Pricing and Financing of Essential Drugs."

Since anti-AIDS medications appeared on Western pharmacy shelves a few years ago at roughly $10,000 a year to keep a patient alive, millions of poor in Africa and Asia have died for want of those drugs.

In recent weeks, two major companies that invested hundreds of millions of dollars to create those drugs have bowed to international pressure and agreed to sell the drugs at or below cost or to give up the right to sell them in the Third World.

"This is not aimed at undercutting pharmaceutical patents," said Dr. Daulaire. Rather the Norway meeting will try to create a system of licensing the right to produce generic versions at a few cents per pill for those unable to afford the current cost in America and Europe.

Major pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, Bristol-Meyers Squibb and Merck will attend. So will specialists from AIDS advocacy and consumer groups. The meeting comes after 39 pharmaceutical companies went to court to block South Africa, where millions are dying of AIDS, from obtaining generic drugs produced without permission from the patent holders.

Cipla, an Indian drug manufacturer, recently offered to sell South Africa inexpensive copycat versions of eight anti-AIDS drugs, including Zerit and Videx. Then Merck said it would offer at its manufacturing cost the protease inhibitor Crixivan and another anti-retroviral, Sustiva.

Last week, Bristol-Myers said it would sell Zerit and Videx for a combined cost of $1 per day.

While this is far below the U.S. daily cost of $18 for the two drugs, most Africans will still be unable to afford them without an international plan of assistance and delivery, said Mr. Daulaire.

"I recall working in Nepal and we had cut the cost of an anti-pneumonia drug for children to 7 cents and still many could not pay it," said Mr. Daulaire, formerly the senior international health official at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Cipla, the Indian firm, was the first to offer cheap AIDS drugs. When India joined the WTO as a developing country, it claimed an exemption from respecting drug patents for several years, said a WTO official who spoke on the condition of anonymity by telephone from Geneva on Friday.

The WTO treaty requires its 140 member nations, including the United States, to change their domestic laws on patents and trade to accord with the WTO.

South Africa, however, which joined the WTO in 1994 as it shifted from white to black-domi-

nated government, did not claim the status of a developing country that could have given it an exemption from patent infringement.

According to the WTO official, South Africa could still declare a national emergency, which allows it under WTO agreements to buy or produce the cheap drugs regardless of patent prohibitions.

However, last week South Africa's government, despite acknowledging that 20 percent of its people carry the HIV virus that causes AIDS, said it would not declare such an emergency existed.

The WTO official noted that pharmaceutical companies may actually increase their profits if the Norway meeting can come up with a way to offer cheap drugs in Asia and Africa while still keeping them at current high prices in the West.

A study of the issue by Doctors without Borders, a humanitarian nongovernmental organization, has shown that millions of new customers will come on line if the drug price falls in the Third World, offering a promise of profits there, said the WTO official.

The Norway meeting will discuss how to prevent the cheap, generic drugs "from leaking back from poor countries to rich ones," said a joint statement by the WTO, WHO, GHC and Norwegian Foreign Ministry that was prepared Friday but embargoed for release until today.

If cheap drugs undercut those currently on sale in America and Europe, drug companies say it will dissuade them from making costly investments in research needed to find new drugs.

The WTO official said the meeting may also explore other ways to fund research, such as through governments and universities, so that lifesaving drugs, once developed, will not be available only to wealthy societies.


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