The World Trade Organization was close to approving a deal Thursday to allow poor nations to pay less for medicines to treat some of the world's deadliest diseases, such as HIV-AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The deal would end a dispute which has threatened free trade talks currently under way.
The agreement allows poor countries to get access to patented medications they could not normally afford by allowing them to order cheaper generic drugs from foreign suppliers.
The deal became possible after the United States decided to join 145 other members of the WTO in approving the measure. 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 like Viagra, the anti-impotence pill.
Under the new accord, WTO states pledge not to abuse the system and not to import generic drugs for commercial gain. They also promise to take all reasonable steps to assure that the cheap generic drugs they import do not turn up in the markets of rich countries.
The $400-billion a year pharmaceutical industry hails the accord. The director-general of the International Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, Harvey Bale, says the agreement gives flexibility to developing countries to address serious public health problems.
However, some development aid groups, such as Oxfam, say the deal comes wrapped in so much red tape, that it poses new obstacles to states that want to import cheap generic drugs. Oxfam officials say poor countries will still have to struggle to obtain cheap medicines and that means thousands of people will continue to die unnecessarily.
However, officials of the World Trade Organization are generally upbeat about the agreement. They say it will give a much needed boost to the WTO's troubled round of free tradetalks. A crucial meeting of trade ministers takes place in two weeks in Cancun, Mexico. Failure to reach agreement on the drug deal would have thrown a huge cloud over this meeting.