NEW DELHI: The World Trade Organisation
(WTO) is reported to have finally made a deal on Wednesday on
providing poor countries the right to override patents of
multinational drug companies and order cheaper generic drugs
that they themselves cannot manufacture from countries such as
To satisfy the US, the world's largest patent
drug manufacturer and home to powerful multinational pharma
companies, however, key safeguards have been provided against
the commercial misuse of the facility.
US-inspired restrictions now built into the deal, trade
diplomats said that it would still benefit to the poor
countries, where millions die every year from curable
infectious diseases for lack of medicines.
they said, was also a major face-saver for the developed
countries before the crucial Cancun meeting of trade ministers
from 146 WTO member-countries in mid-September called to push
negotiations aimed at opening up of trade in agriculture,
services and industrial products.
First promised 19
months ago in the Doha meeting of trade ministers, the
facility for access to medicines by poor countries in public
health crisis has taken long tortuous negotiations in coming.
Even as of now, it's a deal among only five key
countries - the US, India, Brazil, South Africa and Kenya,
brokered by Singapore's WTO ambassador Menon. But since the
five represent the three main interest groups among the WTO
members in this subject, trade diplomats see a full
endorsement of the deal coming as early as Thursday.
It would have fructified in December 2002, when all
countries agreed to compromise text suggested by the head of
the relevant WTO committee, but the US blocked it seeing an
attempt by major bulk drug manufacturers like India and Brazil
to run away with clear commercial advantage.
Brazil, with their thriving generic drugs industries could be
the potential source of supply of medicines for poor countries
in grave public health crisis, such as those in Africa.
In recent weeks, the US has wanted an assurance that
the supply of generic medicines, made essentially out of
humanitarian consideration, do not find their way to developed
country markets and deprive the patent drug manufacturers of
their commercial rights.
The main reason the deal took
so long to come is because the safeguards that the US had
wanted were so restrictive that many, including aid
organistions such as Oxfam and Doctors San Border, suspected
that the promised facility for poor countries would in fact be
of no use.
A balance was needed to be struck and that
seems to have been achieved late on Wednesday evening.
Trade diplomats said at first glace, it seemed that
the deal would make it possible for poor countries facing
public health crisis to order medicines from foreign suppliers
overriding the patents for a variety of diseases, to be
determined by them. The diseases would not be restricted to
just HIV/AIDS, malaria or TB.
Second, while the
developed countries would volunteer not to take advantage of
the facility because patent rights are allowed to be suspended
"in good faith", there will be no exclusion of developing
countries such as India and Brazil, which themselves could
need the facility of overriding patent rights to import
cheaper substitute drugs in the event of public health
Third, to ensure that there will not no
diversion of cheaper generic drugs to developed countries
markets, all WTO members would commit to take necessary steps
such as distinctive colouring and packaging of these medicines
and border checking.
Indian industry sources said that
they were keenly awaiting to see how this WTO deal played out.
It is expected that patent drugs manufacturers might slash
prices in poor country markets so that they were not forced to
order cheaper substitutes from countries such as India.
Even then, there will be a limit to which the
multinationals, eager to make a profit from their patents,
would cut prices. In certain types of medicines, India could
be a supplier at prices several times lower.