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Poor will lose out in new AIDS drugs deal

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Firms' patents will still mean more than AIDS patients
Issue 1867

‘POOR PEOPLE suffering from AIDS will now get cheap life-saving drugs.’

That was the myth pushed out this week by the giant pharmaceutical companies and the US and British governments.

In fact the deal hammered out in the run-up to next week’s World Trade Organisation meeting in Cancun, Mexico, will make matters worse in some respects.

‘Today’s deal was designed to offer comfort to the US and the Western pharmaceutical industry,’ said Ellen ‘t Hoen of Medecins Sans Frontieres.

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

It has thrown up new legal, economic, and political obstacles to the production and export of copies of expensive medicines.

As part of an agreement allowing African countries to import cheaper drugs, the US made other poor countries agree that they would not break patent laws to develop their own drug industries.

This will reduce the range of cheap drugs available to African and other countries.

The big drug firms are terrified of what could happen if companies in, say, India or Brazil could break patents.

This could mean a challenge to the pharmaceutical companies in those countries or even break into the super-profitable Western markets.

Over 40 percent of drug sales are in the US and more than 60 percent of profits come from that market.

Drug company statements during the past year have been full of concerns that competitors might produce cheap copies of the anti-ulcer, anti-depressant and antibiotic drugs.

The giant drug firms are the enemy of people in Africa and they are enemies of ordinary people in the West as well.

‘The drug companies are not interested in lesser developing countries,’ says Michael Bailey from Oxfam’s policy department. ‘The fight all along has been about those developing countries that are potentially significant markets and competitors to the drug companies.’

Even under the new deal, life-saving drugs will remain too expensive for most African countries.

Debt and exploitation also mean they do not have the health infrastructure to use them in the most effective way.

The US government has been blocking a deal over AIDS drugs for Africa since December last year. During the eight months of delay more than two million Africans have died from AIDS.

These issues, and many others, will mean up to 20,000 people are expected to demonstrate at the WTO summit in Cancun, according to protest organisers.

On the agenda at the WTO

AT THE WTO ministers will be present from more than 150 countries.

But the big players are from the US, European Union (EU), Japan and Canada.

If they agree, very few countries will dare to oppose them for fear of losing crucial trade and investment deals. The British government, working through the EU, has pressed to get four new issues on the agenda, despite opposition from over 60 Third World countries.

These are:

  • Investment Agreement: designed to stop governments regulating foreign investors and curbing multinationals in mining, manufacturing, fisheries and agriculture.

  • Competition Policy Agreement: requires poorer countries to develop ‘competition’ regimes to ensure market access for Western multinational companies.

  • Transparency in Government Procurement Agreement: requires countries to publish details of government procurement contracts. It’s seen as a first step towards requiring governments not to ‘discriminate’ against multinationals when purchasing goods.

  • Trade facilitation: requires countries to improve the efficiency of their customs procedures so that Western exports cannot be blocked by ‘unnecessary’ health and safety rules.
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