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Business

Free Trade, Expensive Drugs

The discussion on drug patents dominated the WTO talks in Qatar. Developing countries wanted access to cheap drugs to treat epidemics like AIDS, but the industrialised world is worried about patents and profits.

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The emotive dispute over pharmaceutical patents dominated the five-day conference of the World Trade Organisation in the Gulf state of Qatar. Ministers were hoping to concentrate on lowering barriers to global trade, instead they found themselves locked in an uncomfortable tug-of-war between industrialized and developing countries.

Led by the United States, industrialised countries were reluctant to provide a blanket waiver for drugs patents, worried about its impact on other patents and a threat to the $300 billion-a-year drugs industry.

They said an agreement from 1994 already provided enough flexibility for developing countries to respond to public health emergencies.

To appease its critics, Washington proposed giving the least developed countries a 10-year extension on that agreement and a five-year moratorium on contesting any drug patent actions taken by sub-Saharan Africa.

Too little too late

Poor countries at the WTO talks complained that this concession did not go far enough.

Developing countries, led by Brazil and India, hoped for a waiver on patents based on public health rules that guarantee 20-year patents on medicines.

They said they cannot afford the costly drugs needed to treat millions suffering from diseases such as AIDS and malaria, and must be able to make or import cheap generic versions of those drugs without fear of prosecution from drug companies or the WTO.

On Sunday countries discussing the drugs issue "began to reach a better sense of convergence", an official told reporters.

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