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WTO Summit: Don't Undercut AIDS Drug Access

(New York) — Trade ministers at the upcoming WTO summit in Doha, Qatar should abandon threats of sanctions against countries trying to obtain medicines for health emergencies such as HIV/AIDS, Human Rights Watch said today. The WTO summit will take place from November 9 to 13.

The part of the WTO agreement dealing with patents, known as TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), allows exceptions to patent rules in the case of a national emergency or where a product will have non-commercial uses. Fifty-developing countries and Norway are urging the WTO ministers in Doha to make a pledge not to impede legitimate use of emergency exceptions to TRIPS. In negotiations leading up to the Doha summit, the U.S. and a number of other countries that are home to the major multinational pharmaceutical companies have been intransigent in opposing this pledge.

The United States has also bilaterally threatened sanctions against several countries with severe AIDS problems, such as Thailand, South Africa and Brazil.

"AIDS is already tearing these countries apart," said Joanne Csete, director of the HIV/AIDS program at Human Rights Watch. "They shouldn't face sanctions from the developed world on top of that."

Approximately 9,000 persons a day die of AIDS, the large majority in countries where anti-retroviral drugs are unavailable or unaffordable. More than 22 million people have died of AIDS, about 18 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

The office of the U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick announced last week that instead of the 53-country proposal reinforcing the health emergency exceptions in TRIPS, it would support a counter-proposal that would give "least developed countries" more time until they are required to be fully compliant with TRIPS and would impose a five-year moratorium on initiation of WTO complaints against countries seeking TRIPS exceptions.

Csete noted that the U.S. proposal is a step in the right direction but would cover only the poorest countries and would not include others such as Brazil and South Africa that have capacity for domestic production of generic drugs. She urged the United States not to use bilateral threats and sanctions when the global system allowed exceptions that Washington opposed.

The United States, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom have been granted exceptions to TRIPS and the pre-WTO trade rules many times to protect their own interests in areas as wide-ranging as pharmaceuticals, computers, software, and biotechnology innovations. Canada recently said it would seek a compulsory license — a license to produce and import the generic version of a brand-name medicine — to ensure its stock of anti-anthrax drugs. New Zealand, Australia and Italy have also used compulsory licensing as an antitrust measure.

In contrast, no low-income developing country has succeeded in obtaining a compulsory license for generic AIDS drugs. The United Nations Development Programme's "Human Development Report 2001" attributes this disparity to threats from Europe and the United States of trade sanctions, loss of foreign direct investment, or litigation against low-income countries hoping to obtain compulsory licenses. Earlier this year, for example, the U.S. threatened to put Thailand on "priority watch" — a disadvantageous trade status — in response to the Thai government's attempt to shorten the waiting period for production of generic drugs in Thailand after the release of their brand-name counterparts. (An estimated 750,000 persons in Thailand suffer from AIDS.) A similar U.S. action against Brazil, brought through the WTO, was dropped this year only in the face of heavy international pressure against the case.

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