Today at 3 pm Geneva time, the WTO will meet to make an important decision about the WTO agreement that deals with patents and generic medicines. Although not reported in the US mainstream media, and barely noted in the European, Australian or Canadian press, the decision will contain a provision that is intended to prevent the United States, the members of the European Community, and a few other countries from getting access to generic medicines, even in cases involving national emergencies, such as an avian flu pandemic.
Our trade officials will tell the WTO our countries will “opt-out” of a WTO agreement, as potential importers of generic medicines, no matter what the circumstances are.
The push for the “opt-out” was engineered by the CEOs of large pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfzier CEO Hank, McKinnell, and GSK’s Jean-Pierre Garnier.
In the United States, the “opt-out” was backed by President Bush’s advisor, Karl Rove, and top US trade official Bob Portman. Portman refused to meet with public health groups to defend the decision.
News reporters for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and other major news outlets have not reported on the opt-out issue, claiming “it’s too complex for readers to understand.”
In Europe, the opt-out was first engineered by former DG-Trade head Pascal Lamy, and now by the current European Commission trade chief Peter Mandelson. The opt-out is being quietly backed by UK political leaders like Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, and top trade negotiators in other European countries that host big drug companies, like France, Sweden and German. Mandelson, like Portman, refused to meet with public health groups to defend the opt-out decision.
The decision is the end of a longer negotiation over changes in the WTO agreement involving intellectual property rights, known as the TRIPS agreement. This began in 2001, with the adoption of the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health. The most contentious dispute in this resolution was unresolved in 2001. It concerned the need for more liberal mechanisms to permit the export of generic medicines that are manufactured under a compulsory license.
Unless generic companies can export medicines, they will not have sufficient economies of scale to have efficient production. And unless a country that lacks domestic suppliers of a generic drug can find a foreign supplier, they won’t be able to obtain cheap medicines, when the patent owner cannot supply the market, or won’t charge reasonable prices.
Yesterday three democratic members of the House of Representatives, Representatives Henry Waxman, Tom Allen and Sherrod Brown wrote to Portman opposing the “opt-out” decision.
Virtually every public health group following the WTO TRIPS issues has condemned the agreement that will be reached today, not only on the grounds of the US/EU “opt-out,” but on the grounds that the entire decision is needlessly complex, and designed to frustrate rather than protect access to medicines.