GENEVA (IPS)–Negotiators at the World Trade Organization (WTO) failed Nov. 29 to reach an agreement to ensure poor countries access to essential medicines. Health activists blame the fiasco on opposition from the United States and a handful of other industrialized countries.

The WTO council on the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS), entrusted with the matter of pharmaceutical patents, ended its annual sessions without finding a solution that would guarantee developing countries access to generic medicines.

Mexican diplomat Eduardo Perez Motta, chairman of the TRIPS negotiations, commented that the delegations representing the WTO member states “need time to take stock of the situation and to consult in capitals.”


As a result, the chances for an agreement facilitating poor nations’ access to medications depend on the WTO General Council, the institution’s maximum body when the ministerial conferences are not meeting. The Council is scheduled to meet Dec. 10-12 in Geneva.

In a declaration issued by the ministerial conference held last year in Doha, the Qatar capital, the WTO established health as a priority over trade and resolved that the mechanisms for exporting low-cost pharmaceuticals to poor countries should be resolved by the end of 2002.

Negotiations took place throughout the year to determine how countries of the developing South with their own pharmaceutical industries could supply other poor countries with the medications necessary to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other epidemic diseases.

In early November, just when an agreement on the issue seemed imminent, hurdles emerged because the countries home to the big transnational drug companies–such as the United States and Switzerland–filed objections that went so far as to question the Doha Declaration’s take on trade and health.

Oxfam International (based in Britain), Consumer Project on Technology (United States), and the Malaysia-based Third World Network are blaming industrialized countries for the failure of the talks.

The United States, Japan, Canada, European Union and Switzerland demand that any solution to the problem of access to medications should be limited to those needed for only a few infectious diseases, complain the three organizations.

Some of these wealthy countries also attempted to exclude from the agreement vaccinations, medical equipment and even simple first-aid kits destined for poor countries that cannot manufacture these items themselves.

The three organizations charge that the position taken by the industrialized countries was “dictated by the ambitions of the big pharmaceutical companies.”

Another demand from the North seeks to divide the developing world into different categories for the application of the pharmaceutical access policies.

But Argentine negotiator Alfredo Chiaradia stressed that the Doha Declaration does not establish any sort of distinction between developing nations.

The African delegations to the WTO agreed that the negotiations had turned “disappointing and frustrating,” and that it is unlikely that Africa will be able to resolve its severe public health problems, particularly HIV/AIDS, through this channel.

Africa’s stance has the backing of the rest of the developing world.

Brazil, which along with India pushed the issue of access to low-cost medication through the WTO ministerial conference in Doha, threw its support behind Africa.

Brazilian representative Antonio de Aguiar Patriota stressed that “at this moment Brazil is entirely behind the Africans,” adding that a period for reflection might be best given the current circumstances of the WTO talks.

Mr. Aguiar Patriota commented that the negotiations suffered a setback in recent weeks that had cast doubt over the Doha Declaration’s Paragraph 6, which consecrates that health comes before trade.

There are proposals on the table that would limit the diseases covered by the agreement and would introduce conditions for defining who the beneficiaries would be, said the Brazilian diplomat.

Such demands from the industrialized countries “hardly seem justifiable,” he said. Oxfam International’s Celine Charveriat said her organization was “happy to see that developing countries have stood firm in the face of U.S. attempts to rewrite the Doha Declaration.”

Despite the setbacks, she expressed hope that “we can still reach an effective solution before the end of the year so people have access to drugs and that their right to health is respected.”