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Published: 15 years ago

Remember Bush's $15 Billion To African AIDS Relief?

The WTO Drug Deal
How Hope was Bargained Away
by Carol Goar

There was a time when health activists thought a global trade deal on affordable medicines would
be an achievement worth celebrating.

Now they have one. But they're not celebrating.

Last weekend, members ofthe World Trade Organization agreed on a plan to offer poor countries
improved access to life-saving drugs. The deal, which ended a 21-month test of wills between the
United States and the developing world, was hailed as a breakthrough by relieved negotiators.

Canada's trade minister, Pierre Pettigrew, called it proof that the 146-member WTO "can handle
trade challenges as well as humanitarian issues."

Richard Elliott, director of policy and research at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, wishes he
could be as ebullient.

He acknowledges that the Aug. 30 decision might do some good at the margins. But it falls so far
short of what HIV/AIDS sufferers in Africa and Asia need — and what they were promised — that
he cannot cheer.

To understand the sense of letdown that Elliott and other Third World advocates are feeling, it
helps to go back to the beginning of this round of trade negotiations. The launch took place in the
remote sheikdom of Qatar in November of 2001.

Defying predictions of failure, trade ministers emerged from their six-day meeting with an
agreement to forge a new global trade pact by 2005. The linchpin of their accord was a pledge by all
members to work out rules permitting poor countries to produce or import cut-rate drugs to fight
deadly diseases such as AIDS.

Even skeptics dared to believe that — for once — globalization might produce something positive.

Their hopes soon faded.

The task of converting the ministerial consensus into a legal regime allowing poor countries to
override drug patents proved impossible for trade negotiators. They haggled endlessly.

Meanwhile, the political consensus reached in Qatar began to fall apart. The U.S., backed by Japan
and the Europe Union, insisted that limits be placed on the number of diseases eligible for cheap
medicines. Washington also demanded safeguards to prevent low-cost drugs intended for the
Third World from leaking back into Western markets.

Delegates from the developing countries, in turn, accused the U.S. and its allies of taking their
marching orders from the powerful pharmaceutical industry.

The longer the talks went on, the testier they became. The WTO's deadline of Dec. 31, 2002, for a
drug deal passed without an agreement. Several extensions came and went.

It wasn't until a few weeks ago that negotiators made an all-out effort to break the impasse. This
sudden sense of urgency had little to do with the fact that AIDS kills 6,000 people a day in Africa.
It was prompted by next week's WTO ministerial conference in Cancun, Mexico.

Member governments, deadlocked on the critical issue of agricultural subsidies, wanted something
to show for almost two years' work. A drug deal, they felt, would send trade ministers into their
Sept. 10 to 14 meeting with some badly needed momentum.

Elliott is a realist. He knows that political motives always trump humanitarian concerns at the global
trade bargaining table. But he cannot live with a compromise so flawed that will leave essential
medicines beyond the reach of millions of AIDS sufferers in Africa and Asia.

The deal announced last weekend in Geneva has so many caveats and restrictions that it will take
years to get a trickle of discount drugs flowing into developing countries.

First, any nation seeking to import generic (no name) versions of patented pharmaceutical products
must convince the WTO that it has a genuine "national health emergency" on its hands and no
capacity to produce the drugs it needs. This will require extensive — and expensive — paperwork.

Second, it must take "reasonable measures" to prevent any cut-rate medicine it imports from being
sold outside is borders. Most poor countries have neither the means nor the money to fulfil this

Third, manufacturers of generic drugs will be expected to use special packaging and labeling for
products destined for developing countries to minimize the risk that they will be sold in wealthy
nations. This will drive up the cost of life-saving drugs.

Taken together, Elliott argues, these conditions will make the system almost unworkable.

He doesn't think it is fair that developing countries have to jump through hoops to save lives. He
doesn't think it's right that the WTO has backtracked on its original commitment to make cheap
drugs available to the world's most vulnerable people.

In spite of all this, Elliott hopes Canada will be one of the first nations to start supplying generic
drugs to AIDS-ravaged countries. That would require changes in the Patent Act. "The least we can
do is remove any legal obstacles at our end of things," he says.

Elliott will watch next week's WTO meeting in Cancun with weary detachment.

He has seen how easily a big win can turn into a big disappointment.

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