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WTO seals deal on drugs for poor

Geneva, Aug. 30 (Reuters): The World Trade Organisation (WTO) approved a deal on Saturday to let poorer nations import cheaper generic drugs to fight killer diseases such as AIDS and malaria after days of emotionally charged debate.

The deal plugs a gap in world trade law and allows poorer countries unable to manufacture medicines domestically to override international patents and import cheap generic drugs when they need to.

“The decision that you have just taken is an historic agreement for the WTO,” WTO director-general Supachai Panitchpakdi told member states.

The accord, given a final seal of approval by the WTO’s 146-member executive General Council on Saturday, waives patents owned by multinational firms that are protected by trade rules.

“I find a special satisfaction in the fact that the decision will be of particular value to the smaller and poorer countries... in Africa and elsewhere,” Supachai said.

“It will enable them to make full use of the flexibilities in the WTO intellectual property rules in order to deal with the diseases that ravage their peoples.”

An impassioned plea on Friday by African states, who said that thousands were dying as trade envoys bickered, got the talks back on track after a deal agreed on Thursday by the main negotiating body on medicines ran into last-minute problems.

“It’s especially good news for the people of Africa who so desperately need access to affordable medicines,” said Kenyan ambassador Amina Mohamed. “We have been waiting anxiously for this.”

The US and the European Union also applauded the deal, which allows a country that lacks capacity to produce medicines for itself to obtain them from abroad by making importing generics a right protected by the WTO.

Blow to health activists

But health activists attacked the accord, hammered out by the United States, Brazil, India, Kenya and South Africa, saying it imposed too many conditions on countries seeking to use it.

“Today’s WTO agreement that is ostensibly intended to get drugs to the poorest countries does not provide a workable solution,” Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors without Borders) and Oxfam said in a joint statement.

The pact aims to balance the need for poor states to fight health problems with the demands that WTO members set aside patents only to import generic medicines “in good faith” and do not abuse the system for commercial gain.

It allays concerns of the United States, home to many drugs majors, that waiving patents could be abused for commercial gain by generic producers such as Brazil and India.

The US had feared they could turn out highly-profitable lifestyle remedies such as Viagra for sale in richer developing nations and act as a disincentive to the research necessary to produce life-saving drugs.

Steps will be taken to ensure medicines sold to poor countries do not turn up on rich country markets, and a number of richer developing countries — such as Mexico and South Korea — will agree to use the system only in dire health emergencies.

“It (the pact) will put appropriate safeguards in place to ensure that the solution will be used only for its intended purposes,” US ambassador Linnet Deily said.

Existing world trade rules allow countries with their own drugs industry to waive patents and issue compulsory licences to generic manufacturers when they face health emergencies, but say nothing about states without their own drugs industry.

WTO states have battled over the issue for nearly two years.

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