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WTO: Agreement to Provide Poor Countries Cheaper Drugs 'Still Possible' - 2003-08-29

The World Trade Organization says an agreement is still possible on a deal to give poor countries access to cheaper drugs to fight serious illnesses like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

The World Trade Organization failed Thursday to clinch what many considered a done deal on a trade rule to allow poor countries to import cheap copies of patented drugs to combat diseases like HIV AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. But its officials say an agreement is still possible.

Chief WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell says negotiators are trying to find a solution before a five-day trade summit in Cancun, Mexico starts on September 10.

"Everybody remains committed to try to find a way forward," he said. "Decision-making by consensus in a 146-member organization is never an easy thing. What we hope is that with a little bit more time, a little bit better grasp of the issues, a little bit better understanding between partners as to what it is that they want, where their comfort level lies, that some kind of agreement can be brokered over the next day or two. But it remains unclear."

After months of deliberations, agreement had been expected Thursday. But negotiators said last minute requests from several countries, including Argentina and the Philippines, to make statements on their interpretations of the agreement halted what was thought to be a rubber stamp ruling.

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell says it became clear that negotiators had different perspectives on the text and the decision was not going to be quickly reached.

He says the decision would permit developing countries access to patented drugs they could not normally afford by allowing them to import cheaper generic drugs from foreign suppliers. Under the agreement, he says, the WTO member states promise not to abuse the system and not to import generic drugs for commercial gain.

"It's a humanitarian issue and to show that this organization is committing to addressing, what is for governments in the developing world the most important issue, the safety and well-being of their people, is something which is of paramount importance to us," emphasized Mr. Rockwell.

Big drug companies have welcomed the plan. But some health activists say the proposed pact poses new obstacles to importing cheap generic drugs.