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31 Aug 2003 09:51
Recriminations erupted on Saturday night over an international trade agreement to provide cut-price copies of life-saving drugs to the world’s poorest countries.
Amid jubilation in Geneva, where on Saturday trade negotiators thrashed out a compromise they hope will avert a series of health catastrophes afflicting huge parts of Africa and Asia, fears are growing that the agreement will be unworkable.
Under the intellectual property deal, poor countries can now issue a compulsory licence to import low-cost copies of expensive branded drugs owned by powerful pharmaceutical firms.
But according to trade analysts, the deal will be unable to provide the quantities of drugs needed to combat the world’s growing deadly infections.
“[The] deal was designed to offer comfort to the United States and Western pharmaceutical industry,” said Ellen ‘t Hoen of Médécins Sans FrontiÃ¨res. “Unfortunately, it offers little comfort for poor patients. Global patent rules will continue to drive up the price of medicines.”
The principal concern is that it will be uneconomic for manufacturers of cheap copies of expensive drugs to export them to countries that need it. Pharmaceutical firms, whose collective profits run into tens of billions of rands, have largely failed to reduce the price of their products, making them unaffordable to developing countries.
A deal has been held up for two years over concerns by pharmaceutical companies, led by American giant Pfizer, that generic drug companies, who copy patented products, will make huge profits from health crises. The major firms also fear medicines meant for the poor will “leak” into the West. Campaigners dismiss that as an exaggeration.
“This is a historic agreement for the World Trade Organisation,” said its director general, Supachai Panitchpakdi. “It proves the organisation can handle humanitarian as well as trade concerns.”
There has been immense pressure for poor countries to adopt the deal. Had it collapsed yesterday it would have derailed next week’s trade talks in Mexico. The agreement comes as a new study reveals a massive outbreak of hepatitis C in Africa.
Oxfam reveals that 170-million people globally are infected, with 150-million of them living in poor countries. The disease is labelled “Africa’s silent killer”. Cases progress slowly, resulting in chronic liver diseases, cirrhosis and cancer. But the overwhelming number of sufferers have no access to medicines to combat the disease
Hepatitis C is most prevalent in Egypt where up to a fifth of its 70-million population suffer from it, according to the campaign group.
Two pharmaceutical companies produce drugs to combat the disease—Hoffman-La Roche and Schering-Plough. A Hoffman La Roche spokesperson was unaware of any discount schemes by his firm to poor countries.
Mohga Kamal Smith of Oxfam, who wrote the report, said: “The world is focused on HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, but hepatitis C affects tens of millions. The medicines are unaffordable.
“Yesterday’s agreement may be seen as a breakthrough, but the reality is the drugs will not be affordable for the millions who need them. The tragedy is this is a missed opportunity.”—Guardian Unlimited Â
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