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WTO drugs deal stalls over last minute squabble
( 2003-08-29 10:29) (Agencies)

The World Trade Organization's executive General Council on Friday delayed its decision on a deal to ease access to cheaper drugs for poor nations that had been approved by its top negotiating body earlier.

Negotiators said last minute requests from Argentina, the Philippines and several other nations to make statements on their interpretations of the deal ahead of WTO approval halted what was expected to be a rubber stamp ruling.

"There is no deal. More consultations are required," WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told journalists.

Trade officials said talks might continue later on Friday, but added that there was little time left to wrap up an accord because envoys would soon leave Geneva to return to their capitals to brief trade ministers ahead of a five-day trade summit in Cancun, Mexico starting on September 10.

"I cannot rule out an agreement (in the General Council) before Cancun, but this makes it more difficult," Rockwell said.

Making it easier for poorer states unable to manufacture medicines to import cheap generic drugs when they need to is seen as vital to beating major killer diseases such as AIDS and malaria. But it means setting aside patents owned by multinational firms which are protected by trade rules.

Negotiators said the problems surfaced at the close of the so-called TRIPS Council, the top negotiating body on the drugs question, which includes all the WTO's 146 member states.

A number of countries said they wanted to spell out their interpretations of the text before its formal approval in the General Council.

"It became clear that people had different perspectives on the text...and we would not be able to get an agreement," Rockwell said.

WTO countries had earlier signaled their support for a pact that had been hammered out during days of negotiations between the United States, home to some of the world's largest drugs concerns, Brazil, India, Kenya and South Africa.

Brazil and India are major producers of generic drugs, which are cheaper copies of patented medicines, while Kenya and South Africa represented countries most affected by the scourges of AIDS and malaria.

Existing world trade rules allow countries -- developed or developing -- with their own domestic drugs industry to waive patents and issue compulsory licenses to generic manufacturers when they face health emergencies.

But the regulations say nothing about states without their own drugs industry and WTO states have been battling for nearly two years to agree on a solution.


The pact was aimed at allaying U.S. concerns that any waiving of patents could be abused for commercial gain by generic producers in developing countries, who, it feared, could start turning out highly profitable life-style remedies such as Viagra for sale in richer Third World nations.

It was because of such fears that Washington blocked an attempt at a deal late last year after it had been accepted by all other WTO members.

Under the new pact, the United States would drop its opposition to the December 2002 plan in return for an accompanying statement laying down some further conditions.

Health activists had blasted the proposed pact because of the additional requirements and some developing country makers of generic drugs also expressed skepticism.

But big drugs companies welcomed the plan.

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