US to consider poor countries' need for drugs


Public health groups yesterday welcomed President Bill Clinton's announcement at the World Trade Organisation meeting that US trade policy would in future consider poor countries' need for access to lifesaving drugs, including drugs for treating HIV/Aids.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, Health Action International and the US-based Consumer Project on Technology urged the US to back up the president's words by ending current trade pressures on poor countries in healthcare related disputes. Non-governmental organisations, including Aids activists, have mounted a vigorous campaign over the past year or so to change US trade policy.

Under pressure from US pharmaceutical companies, they say, Washington has tried to prevent developing countries from using arrangements such as compulsory licensing or parallel imports to provide lower-cost drugs, even where these are permitted under WTO intellectual property rules.

In September, the US dropped its sanctions threats against South Africa which wants to use these arrangements to cope with its HIV/ Aids epidemic, after Aids groups disrupted the US presidential campaign of Vice-president Al Gore.

However, Jamie Love of the Consumer Project on Technology said the US was still in dispute with more than 40 countries over intellectual property issues related to health. After President Clinton's speech on Wednesday, US officials said the US trade representative would work with the US health department in trying to ensure the availability of lower-cost medicines where countries identify a "healthcare emergency, particularly in respect of HIV/Aids".

Mr Love said the move marked a sharp shift in US policy but it was still unclear how the new arrangements would work and how the pharmaceutical industry would react.

Harvey Bale, of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, said yesterday that the change "would not do any damage to the pharmaceutical industry". But compulsory licensing and parallel imports were not the answer to drug-access problems because even drugs provided at cost price were not necessarily affordable.

A better option was global financing through joint public/private initiatives such as the Medicines for Malaria venture sponsored by the World Health Organisation.

Separately, pharmaceutical companies expressed concern about a EU proposal for the WTO ministerial declaration that would stipulate the right of countries to use compulsory licensing for medicines on the WHO's essential drugs list.

Source: Financial Times
December 3, 1999