GENEVA, Mar 28 (IPS) - Poor countries and transnational
pharmaceutical firms are wrangling over the question of access
to inexpensive medications, a controversy that has entangled
the two international bodies governing health and trade, the
WHO and the WTO, respectively.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Trade
Organisation (WTO) acknowledge that global debate is heating up
in regard to the compatibility of trade regulations and the
ethical principles concerning the right to medical treatment,
especially in those countries hard hit by the HIV/AIDS
The contradictions entailed will be on the table for all to see
during the World Health Assembly, May 14-22 in Geneva, because
Brazil and South Africa are going to demand that the WHO member
nations emit a declaration in favour of low-cost access to
drugs for treating specific diseases.
The Brazilian and South African governments are currently
involved in cases brought before national and international
tribunals, where they defend what they insist is their right to
protect the access of their poorest populations to
South Africa faces a legal challenge from 39 transnational
pharmaceutical firms that question the legality of the national
medication policy adopted by the government.
In the case of Brazil, the United States convinced the WTO to
set up a panel that is to rule on whether the health provisions
of the South American country are in line with international
Washington filed the complaint with the WTO on behalf of US-
based pharmaceutical laboratories that claim damages arising
from Brazil's granting of licenses, without the consent of the
patent- holders, to manufacture medications at lower cost.
The US-sponsored litigation threatens Bras�lia's efforts to
fight HIV/AIDS, which include providing free medical treatment
for people who test HIV-positive, says the Paris-based non-
governmental organisation (NGO) Doctors without Borders in a
declaration of support for Brazil.
The WHO has not yet stated an opinion on the Brazilian case,
but sources consulted by IPS indicated that the United Nations
health agency would speak out before the upcoming World Health
Assembly, its maximum governing body.
But the WHO has publicly stated that South Africa's national
measures regarding medications represent "a good public health
WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland has pointed out that
her institution worked with the South African authorities to
prepare the national drug policy, the same one the
pharmaceutical companies are now condemning.
Meanwhile, the director-general of the WTO, Mike Moore,
maintained that the solution to the problem lies in a balanced
approach that respects the protection of intellectual property
rights over pharmaceutical products and access for poor people
to affordable medications.
But the root of the problem can be found in one of the 18
treaties that make up the WTO legal system, the Agreement on
Trade- Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, known
Because of its regulations on access and prices of critical
products like medications, TRIPS has earned severe criticisms
from developing countries. Two India-born economists living in
the United States, Jagdish Bhagwati, a former professor at
Colombia University, and T.N. Srinivasan, of Cornell
University, have gone so far as to say that TRIPS has no place
within the WTO. In the process leading up to the failed 1999
WTO ministerial conference in the US city of Seattle, the
Venezuelan government had proposed freeing up patent rights on
all essential drugs.
The TRIPS Council, a WTO body that oversees implementation of
the accord, begins sessions Monday with Zimbabwe's Boniface
Guwa Chidyausiku presiding. Developing countries are preparing
to focus the debate on access to reasonably priced medicines.
In response to the international doubts and controversies on
the matter, the WTO and the WHO decided to organise a workshop
on the matter in Norway, April 8-11. The basic objective of the
meeting, sponsored by the Norwegian government, will be to
improve access of the poorer sectors of developing countries to
essential medicines, but without altering the framework of
trade regulations governing intellectual property.
At the workshop "Differential Pricing and Financing of
Essential Drugs," representatives from drug companies, NGOs and
governments are to assess the viability of a differentiated
pricing system that makes essential pharmaceuticals affordable
for developing countries but would prevent these low-cost drugs
from being sold in wealthier countries.
To finance such a system would mean turning to a range of
resources, such as foreign debt relief, contributions from the
countries involved and foreign aid, as well as the involvement
of the private sector - as is occurring in South Africa, where
some companies cover the medical costs of their employees with
It is not necessarily true that the TRIPS agreement causes drug
prices to rise in developing countries, according to sources at
the WHO. Pharmaceuticals were already expensive in those
countries prior to the approval of the accord in 1994.
Nevertheless the future WTO chief, Thailand's Panichadpki
Supachai, reportedly has made TRIPS reform an agenda priority.
Supachai is to replace New Zealander Moore at the helm of the
WTO in September 2002.