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Health Experts: Kenya Can Benefit From Looser Patent Restrictions on Drugs - 2001-11-16

Experts in Kenya say the country could benefit under an agreement reached at the World Trade Organization conference this week that allows poor countries to override patents on lifesaving drugs in emergency situations. Kenya has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world and has been campaigning to make life-prolonging AIDS drugs more affordable.

In Kenya, about 700 deaths a day are attributed to AIDS-related causes, leading President Daniel arap Moi to declare AIDS a national disaster.

Anti-retroviral drugs allow people infected with HIV to live longer, healthier lives. But they cost around $1,000 a year, three times the average Kenyan's income.

The agreement reached at the WTO conference would allow poor countries to manufacture and import cheaper generic versions of these drugs, at a cost of around $350 a year.

Sophie-Marie Scouflaire, of the Kenya Coalition for Access to Essential Medicines, has said her group plans to lobby the government to issue compulsory licenses to generic manufacturers. "The main gap at the moment is that the ministry of health has to identify good quality generic suppliers and manufacturers, and make sure they can approve them by the pharmacy and poisons board. And, as soon as they are approved, the ministry of trade can give the license, and we have the medicines available. So, now, we have a big work to follow what the government will do, and make sure they act for the benefit of our people," she said.

Ms. Scouflaire has said generic drugs could be available to Kenyans as soon as January. "For local manufacturers, it will take some months. But if we can give licenses to international generic manufacturers, then normally we could say in January the medicines should be here," she said.

Kenyan Trade and Industry Minister Nicholas Biwott told reporters he is pleased that his ministry can now issue compulsory licenses without fear of challenge.

But Ms. Scouflaire is worried that many in government do not understand the details of the WTO agreement. She said she will be visiting the ministry of health next week to make sure they take full advantage of the new concessions.