NGOs accuse rich nations over TRIPS and public health

by Kanaga Raja

Geneva, 20 Sep 2001 - Several civil society groups have accused a small number of industrialized countries of having frustrated developing-country efforts at seeing progress made at the WTO on the subject of how patent rules affect access to medicines in poor countries.

In a joint press statement, Medicins san Frontieres (MSF), Oxfam and Third World Network say that a small number of industrialized countries, led by the US and Switzerland, are obstructing progress at the WTO on the controversial subject of how patent rules affect access to medicines in poor countries.

The NGOs say that at the TRIPS Council special discussion on access to medicines on 19 September, five industrialized countries countered proposals from over fifty developing countries with a statement that echoed the well-rehearsed views of the international pharmaceutical companies.

The NGOs add that as a result of this, developing-country delegates left the conference room voicing a deep sense of frustration at the intransigence of the US and Switzerland, whose arguments had been seconded by Japan, Australia and Canada.

MSF, Oxfam and Third World Network have expressed fear that a unique opportunity to ensure that TRIPS does not prejudice public health in poor countries is being wasted.

“The US-sponsored paper presented yesterday [19 September], which was not even a complete draft, showed disdain for the concerns of the developing world, and risks bringing the TRIPS Agreement into further disrepute,” commented Michael Bailey of Oxfam.

According to the NGOs, the US and Switzerland argue that there is essentially no problem with the Agreement, and thus, no need for clarifications at Doha.

The 52 developing countries, the NGOs say, had produced a well-argued and balanced proposition for how the WTO patent rules (the TRIPS Agreement) should be interpreted in a way that guarantees the ability of governments to ensure access to affordable medicines.

The NGOs note that one of developing countries’ demands was for WTO members to state, without qualification, that the TRIPS Agreement shall not prevent governments from taking measures necessary to protect public health.

Sadly, the NGOs lament, even this met with opposition.

The developing-country group, which included the African, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American nations, asked WTO members to support their proposal to the forthcoming Ministerial Conference at Doha, where it would be endorsed as a free-standing declaration.

The NGOs say that at the TRIPS Council meeting, the European Union accepted some of the concerns of developing countries but stopped well short of full endorsement.

“We can see a gap between the US and EU positions, but the EU has to come off the fence and support the developing countries,” said Ellen ‘t Hoen of MSF.  “Many lives,” she adds, “depend on the political will of WTO members to reach a clear agreement at Doha.”

Cecilia Oh of Third World Network remarked, “The response of the industrialized countries to the problems with TRIPS is the litmus test for whether the WTO will put people’s needs before the commercial interests of its most powerful members”.

“The refusal of the five wealthy trading nations to prioritise health can only increase public skepticism about the social benefits of the TRIPS Agreement, “ she added. – SUNS4971

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