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WTO Meeting Agrees on Cheap Drug Plan for Poor Nations - 2002-11-15

A meeting of the World Trade Organization in Australia has agreed on a plan to give the world's poorest nations access to cheaper drugs to combat global health crises. Outside the summit, anti-globalization activists clashed with police.

Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile says the plan to give poorer countries greater access to cheaper drugs is not "an economic issue" but a "moral obligation" for the developed world.

Providing medicines to impoverished nations where people are dying of diseases that are treatable in the West has been at the heart of these talks. It is an issue fraught with problems. Powerful pharmaceutical companies insist on safeguards to protect their markets for drugs they have spent millions of dollars to develop.

Poorer countries, facing epidemics of AIDS and malaria, can not afford many medicines patented by European and U.S. companies.

Trade Minister Vaile said on Friday great progress had been made to bring all sides to a common position. Now, Mr. Vaile said, WTO staff must work out the final details, including which countries will be eligible for the cheap drugs. "That's the work that needs to be done from now [until] the year end, in terms of identifying the countries that should have access," he said.

An official from the European Union said medicines to treat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis will be covered in the agreement. Pharmaceutical companies will try to block moves to include drugs for treating cancer and diabetes.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has urged the 25 ministers meeting in Sydney to draw up a plan that would allow the WTO to meet a December 31 deadline for solving the issue.

Outside the fortified conference center, hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police and about 40 people were arrested. A ring of steel fencing around the conference center protected delegates, along with concrete barricades and hundreds of police and guard dogs. Demonstrators say the WTO increases profits for rich countries at the expense of the poor.