- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

The World Trade Organization yesterday moved toward an agreement that would allow poor countries to import cheap, generic drugs to combat epidemics like AIDS and malaria.

A solution at the WTO, which could come as soon as today, would settle a difficult issue that has pit the United States against the organization’s other 145 members. The deal also would add some momentum to global talks that are two weeks away from the most important meeting of the world’s trade ministers in two years.

By waiving patents, poor countries would be able to manufacture or import less-expensive, generic drugs to counter health epidemics.

The United States, reflecting concerns of major pharmaceutical producers that some companies would be able to profit from a poorly worded agreement, had demanded clear limits for the waivers.

The United States since December had been the lone holdout on the sensitive issue.

Developing countries like Kenya and India strongly criticized the U.S. position. Those countries, with Brazil and South Africa, worked with the United States to find a compromise that would be presented to all WTO members.

Peter Allgeier, deputy U.S. trade representative, yesterday said a final solution before the Sept. 10-14 meeting would be possible. He said the agreement would balance concerns of drug manufacturers and developing countries, but he would not discuss specifics.

Most members appeared to endorse the proposed solution, but observers noted that one dissenter alonecould derail it.

The compromise would leave intact a text from December that was rejected by the United States, but would add a“chairman’s statement” that refines several points. The statement would specify, for example, that the import of generic drugs would be used in “good faith” to protect public health and not as an instrument for industrial or commercial objectives.

Consumer and aid groups quickly criticized the proposed agreement, saying it would create too many obstacles for generic production to be efficient or effective.

“It is crass protectionism by Europeans and Americans,” said James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, a Washington group founded by Ralph Nader.

A spokesman at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — which represents pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and Merck — said the group would not comment on the chairman’s statement before a WTO vote.

The drug-access talks were part of several days of lengthy and intensive discussions in Geneva this week as the WTO prepares for the trade ministers’ meeting in Cancun, Mexico. The conference will be the biggest and most important gathering of ministers since November 2001, when they started the current round of talks in Doha, Qatar.

“We’re somewhere in between Seattle and Doha as we go into the last week,” Mr. Allgeier said, referring to 1999 meetings in the United States that were marred by violent protests and ended without an agreement.

The WTO members still have acute differences on how they should ease global commerce for farmers and manufacturers, Mr. Allgeier said.

Negotiators have missed every important deadline for talks, and failure to agree this week on a framework for a final agreement would load the agenda for Cancun.

Trade in agricultural and manufactured goods, as well as investment issues, divided countries during three days of intense negotiations in Geneva.

“These are very, very difficult issues, but I think … we will have in these areas a framework to proceed in these negotiations,” Mr. Allgeier said in a conference call from Geneva.

Agriculture remains at the heart of the talks.

The United States and European Union earlier this month proposed a loose outline to reduce tariffs andchange the way subsidies are paid. Brazil is leading a group of 20 nations with a counterproposal that would make more radical cuts to subsidies, but would allow poorer nations to protect their markets by maintaining higher tariffs than the United States would like.

Several other countries have offeredtheir own alternatives.

A compromise proposal drafted by the WTO and released Sunday left big agricultural producers unsatisfied.

Other problem areas include tariff levels on manufactured goods and investment issues.



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