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WTO Reaches Generic Drug Deal - 2003-08-30

After several days of difficult negotiations and spurred on by pleas from African nations, World Trade Organization member governments approved a deal that will allow developing countries to import cheap generic drugs. Trade representatives say they believe the agreement will boost prospects for making progress toward a global free trade agreement.

The deal has been hailed by all 146 members of the World Trade Organization. This hard-won agreement will let developing countries ignore some patent rules so they can import drugs from cheaper generic manufacturers.

The WTO's Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi calls this an important agreement. He says it will save lives and allow people in poor countries to have preventive care as well.

"This is certainly an historic and auspicious moment for the organization because it proves we can achieve through our trade means also the goals of humanitarian consequences," he said.

The agreement was achieved after several days of emotionally charged negotiations. The deal had appeared set after the United States, the only holdout, said it would join the other WTO members in approving the measure. But then at the last minute, several countries said they wanted to make formal statements while others refused to agree.

The Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Sergio Marchi, says an impassioned plea by African countries that they be allowed to import cheap life-saving drugs turned the tide in favor of an agreement.

"There were so many African countries that took to the floor," said Ambassador Marchi. "They all spoke with one strong, moving voice. They talked about two million Africans having died since the December 16 deadline. We heard people who sometimes perhaps had never spoke before. And, they showed that the poorest amongst us do make a difference in this organization and helped the WTO find its heart and soul. Without them, it would not have been done."

Washington had rejected the proposal when it first came up in December, largely because of objections by U.S. drug makers. They feared the agreement would allow widespread production of patented drugs such as Viagra, the anti-impotence pill.

The U.S. representative to WTO, Linnet Deily, now praises the agreement, saying it strikes the right balance between the needs of poor countries and drug manufacturers.

"The decision will ensure that patent rules do not prevent a country that lacks capacity to produce medicines for itself from obtaining them from abroad," she said. "At the same time, it will put appropriate safeguards in place to ensure that the solution will be used only for its intended purposes."

The only sour note came from health activists such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders. They say the deal is designed to offer comfort to the United States and the western pharmaceutical industry. They claim that global patent rules will continue to drive up the price of medicines for poor countries.