A new round in the battle over cheap AIDS drugs for poor countries is
shaping up as World Trade Organization ministers meet in Qatar tomorrow, with
the Bush administration facing charges of rank hypocrisy.
Just two weeks after the administration muscled steep price concessions
from Bayer AG for its anthrax antibiotic Cipro, U.S. trade negotiators in Doha, Qatar, will be fighting a bid by developing nations to ease patent protection
against knock-off versions of costly drugs that treat AIDS.
At issue in Doha is a declaration proposed by 60 countries that would
clearly affirm the right to sidestep patent laws in the name of public health -
- in particular "to ensure access to medicines for all."
"Nothing," the draft proposal declares, ". . . shall prevent members from
taking measures to protect public health."
Brazil and India, which do not fully recognize patent protections on AIDS
drugs and make low-cost versions, are primary backers of the declaration. The
United States is staunchly opposed.
"The Cipro thing was timely," said James Love, of Consumer Project on
Technology in Washington, D.C., an organization founded by Ralph Nader. "When
the U.S. did not like the price of a medicine, we were very fast to say we
might override patent rights. When Brazil did the same thing (for AIDS drugs),
they were savaged."
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson reportedly threatened to
sidestep Bayer's patent to win a 50 percent price cut on 300 million Cipro
pills destined for the U.S. stockpile of drugs against anthrax. Canada
similarly got a price break after a brief legal battle with Bayer.
The Qatar conference -- the first WTO Ministerial Meeting since the Seattle
conference in 1999 -- will take up the issue but may not resolve it. Talks are
likely to go on for years.
As an alternative to the 60-nation proposal, the U.S. Trade Representative
is proposing an extension of the deadline certain poor countries have to
comply with international patent rules. The poorest 40 or so countries would
have until 2016; sub-Saharan African nations fighting AIDS, malaria and
tuberculosis would be shielded from trade actions relating to drug patents.
"As the United States and our trading partners pursue free trade, we need
to do so in a way that is consistent with our values and draws on our
compassion," said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, in a Washington,
D.C., speech last week.
AIDS activists dismiss the concessions as empty gestures. Most of the
affected countries can already seek extensions under current trade rules, and
among those left out are South Africa -- with a huge AIDS problem -- and India, one of the countries that can make generic drugs.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the epicenter of a global AIDS epidemic. An estimated
25.3 million people in that region are infected with HIV, the virus that
causes AIDS. Each year, 2.4 million Sub-Saharan Africans die of the disease.
The key question behind all the rule making, according to Love, is whether
the United States and Europe will relax rules on the export of generic drugs
by countries such as India to AIDS afflicted nations that cannot produce the
Indian drugmaker Cipla Ltd. has developed a three-drug combination of AIDS
drugs it has offered to sell to the French medical group Doctors Without
Borders for $350. That compares to prices of $1,000 a year offered by
drugmakers in negotiations with a handful of African governments, and to $12,
000 for similar drug combinations sold in the United States.
Although an existing agreement known as TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of
Intellectual Property Rights) gives all nations the right to override patents
and a mechanism for compensating the patent-holders, poor nations have been
reluctant to invoke it -- fearing lengthy disputes before WTO settlement
"Countries that have tried this have come under pressure from the U.S. and
the European Union," said Ellen 't Hoen, a Doctors Without Borders activist.
Mark Grayson, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers
of America, said the 60-nation proposal would be a disaster that would
undermine economic development in all poor countries.
"That language is extraordinarily potent," he warned. "With that language,
there might as well not be a TRIPS." The definition of public health in the
proposal is so broad, he said, that no patent of the drug industry would be
The real agenda of Brazil and India, according Grayson, is to give their
generic drug industries a freer hand to "take the property" of the drug
companies that research and patent their products.
"They've hijacked the AIDS crisis to hone their own industrial development,
" Grayson charged.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle