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Deal lets poor nations import cheap copies of patented drugs

GENEVA -- Following an impassioned appeal from Africa, the World Trade Organization yesterday sealed a deal to allow poor countries to import cheap copies of patented drugs for deadly diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

"All people of good will and good conscience will be very happy today with the decision that the WTO members have made," said Kenyan Ambassador Amina Chawahir Mohamed. "It's especially good news for the people of Africa who desperately need access to affordable medicine."

The United States has been trying to protect the interests of drug companies, which feared the firms could lose control of their patent rights. US concessions this week broke an eight-month stalemate over the issue.

The final breakthrough followed a meeting Friday during which representatives of many African countries pleaded with other diplomats to stop trying to win last-minute advantages for their nations.

In a joint statement, the African representatives pointed out that nearly 2.2 million Africans have died from AIDS-related and other deadly diseases since the issue became deadlocked on Dec. 16.

The WTO's supreme General Council reconvened yesterday morning and gave formal approval to an agreement reached by a lower body late Thursday, before it ran into political wrangling. "This is a historic agreement for the WTO," said director general Supachai Panitchpakdi. "The final piece of the jigsaw has fallen into place, allowing poorer countries to make full use of the flexibilities in the WTO's intellectual property rules in order to deal with the diseases that ravage their people."

But groups campaigning to provide poor people better access to lifesaving drugs criticized the agreement.

"Today's deal was designed to offer comfort to the US and the Western pharmaceutical industry," said Ellen `t Hoen of the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders.

"Unfortunately, it offers little comfort for poor patients. Global patent rules will continue to drive up the price of medicines," she said.

Diplomats in the 146-nation body spent six straight days trying to secure a compromise. The representatives had nearly reached a deal by 1 a.m. Friday after a marathon session, but it fell through minutes later. Negotiators said the deal failed over demands by some countries to make statements before final approval. Those statements can be used to make "reservations," or spell out limits countries will place on their adherence to the accord.

Some developing countries said they would accept the pact only on the understanding that antismuggling measures would not add to the price of the drugs or make it more difficult for needy countries to obtain them.

The countries also noted that the agreement is supposed to be a short-term fix for the next few years. They said they wanted to see work begin quickly to include the deal in the WTO's treaty on intellectual property rights.

Under WTO rules, countries facing public health crises have the right to override patents on vital drugs and order copies from cheaper, generic suppliers. However, until now they could only order from domestic producers, a useless loophole for the overwhelming majority of developing countries that have no domestic pharmaceutical industry.

US pharmaceutical research companies voiced their concern that a deal allowing countries to import generic drugs would be abused by those manufacturers and could also result in drugs being smuggled back into wealthy industrialized countries.

To satisfy those concerns, the document was accompanied by the new statement setting out conditions for using the measure.

The statement says rules allowing countries to override patents "should be used in good faith to protect public health . . . not be an instrument to pursue industrial or commercial policy objectives."

It calls for special measures to prevent drugs being smuggled back to rich country markets, including special packaging or different colored tablets. Developed countries would agree not to make use of the provision.

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