- The Washington Times - Friday, November 29, 2002

Talks on drug patents at the World Trade Organization stalled Wednesday when negotiators failed to resolve one of the most divisive issues among developed and developing countries.

Negotiators in Geneva were scheduled to wrap up intellectual-property-rights discussions Wednesday but, unable to work out details, agreed to suspend the meeting until today.

WTO members are trying to hammer out an agreement that would allow poor countries access to generic drugs while protecting the intellectual property rights of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies.

A source close to the talks said progress was "extremely difficult."

As part of the Doha Development Agenda, agreed to last year during a meeting in Qatar's capital, WTO members said international patent rules on specific drugs should allow poor countries facing health emergencies access to generic drugs, which are less expensive than brand-name counterparts.

The WTO's 144 member nations set a year-end deadline to resolve the matter.

Negotiators have not given up hope, but they are not optimistic.

"We're going to have a difficult time coming to an agreement," said a U.S. trade source, who asked not to be named.

The sides are hung up on who should be able to access the generic drugs, where the pharmaceuticals would be produced and what kinds of diseases would spur a waiver on patent protections.

U.S. negotiators said they want to restrict the waivers to poor countries that are facing epidemics. Some developing countries that could capitalize on looser rules want to be able to produce a wider variety of products and sell them to a broader class of developing countries.

The move to liberalize intellectual property rules beyond the scope of the original agreement has been an "assault on pharmaceutical protections by some countries," the U.S. trade source said. "We keep asking countries to come to their senses and remember what got us here to help poor countries."

U.S. pharmaceutical companies are urging the negotiators to hold the line. They argue that developing cutting-edge medicines is expensive and that infringing on patents would make companies less profitable and thus less able to invest in research and development.

"What we believe is for something to really work, it needs to be focused on what came out of Doha. That's what we need to stick to," said Mark Grayson, spokesman for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade group representing U.S. research-based pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

The United States is home to many of the world's leading pharmaceutical firms.

But the developing world says the United States is backtracking on pledges it made last year.

"Developing countries are rightly resisting rich countries' efforts to water down the commitments made one year ago in Doha, and stand by their demands to ensure access to affordable medicines in their countries," said a statement from Oxfam International, an international group that is pushing for wider access to medicines.

Big drug companies are proposing conditions and restrictions that would render the solution worthless, Oxfam says.

Pharmaceutical patents are one of more than a dozen issues open for discussion during WTO talks this week.

The patent rules are covered by the WTO's agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, usually referred to as TRIPs.

The agreement covers subjects including patents for pharmaceuticals, copyright and trademarks, integrated circuit designs and trade secrets.

WTO members are supposed to provide patent protection for any invention, including medicines and methods of producing the chemical ingredients for a medicine.

Patent protection lasts at least 20 years.


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