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SUNDAY, APRIL 17, 2005

Poor nations can order generic drugs from India

[ THURSDAY, AUGUST 28, 2003 09:28:03 AM ]
NEW DELHI: The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is reported to have finally made a deal on Wednesday on providing poor countries the right to override patents of multinational drug companies and order cheaper generic drugs that they themselves cannot manufacture from countries such as India.

To satisfy the US, the world's largest patent drug manufacturer and home to powerful multinational pharma companies, however, key safeguards have been provided against the commercial misuse of the facility.

Despite the US-inspired restrictions now built into the deal, trade diplomats said that it would still benefit to the poor countries, where millions die every year from curable infectious diseases for lack of medicines.

The deal, they said, was also a major face-saver for the developed countries before the crucial Cancun meeting of trade ministers from 146 WTO member-countries in mid-September called to push negotiations aimed at opening up of trade in agriculture, services and industrial products.

First promised 19 months ago in the Doha meeting of trade ministers, the facility for access to medicines by poor countries in public health crisis has taken long tortuous negotiations in coming.

Even as of now, it's a deal among only five key countries - the US, India, Brazil, South Africa and Kenya, brokered by Singapore's WTO ambassador Menon. But since the five represent the three main interest groups among the WTO members in this subject, trade diplomats see a full endorsement of the deal coming as early as Thursday.

It would have fructified in December 2002, when all countries agreed to compromise text suggested by the head of the relevant WTO committee, but the US blocked it seeing an attempt by major bulk drug manufacturers like India and Brazil to run away with clear commercial advantage.

India and Brazil, with their thriving generic drugs industries could be the potential source of supply of medicines for poor countries in grave public health crisis, such as those in Africa.

In recent weeks, the US has wanted an assurance that the supply of generic medicines, made essentially out of humanitarian consideration, do not find their way to developed country markets and deprive the patent drug manufacturers of their commercial rights.

The main reason the deal took so long to come is because the safeguards that the US had wanted were so restrictive that many, including aid organistions such as Oxfam and Doctors San Border, suspected that the promised facility for poor countries would in fact be of no use.

A balance was needed to be struck and that seems to have been achieved late on Wednesday evening.

Trade diplomats said at first glace, it seemed that the deal would make it possible for poor countries facing public health crisis to order medicines from foreign suppliers overriding the patents for a variety of diseases, to be determined by them. The diseases would not be restricted to just HIV/AIDS, malaria or TB.

Second, while the developed countries would volunteer not to take advantage of the facility because patent rights are allowed to be suspended "in good faith", there will be no exclusion of developing countries such as India and Brazil, which themselves could need the facility of overriding patent rights to import cheaper substitute drugs in the event of public health emergencies.

Third, to ensure that there will not no diversion of cheaper generic drugs to developed countries markets, all WTO members would commit to take necessary steps such as distinctive colouring and packaging of these medicines and border checking.

Indian industry sources said that they were keenly awaiting to see how this WTO deal played out. It is expected that patent drugs manufacturers might slash prices in poor country markets so that they were not forced to order cheaper substitutes from countries such as India.

Even then, there will be a limit to which the multinationals, eager to make a profit from their patents, would cut prices. In certain types of medicines, India could be a supplier at prices several times lower.
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