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WTO approves deal on cheap medicines for poor countries

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GENEVA (AFX) - The World Trade Organisation on Saturday approved a deal to allow poor countries to have access to cheap drugs to fight killer diseases, a breakthrough that could save millions of lives among the world's most destitute.

"This is a historic agreement for the WTO," WTO director-general Supachai Panitchpakdi said.

The deal is designed to allow poor countries which do not have their own pharmaceutical industries to import cheaper, generic copies of patented medicines to fight diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

Access to generic versions of antiretroviral AIDS drugs is a life-or-death issue for the estimated 30 mln Africans suffering from the disease, according to UN figures -- out of a total 42 mln worldwide.

The deal drew wide praise, although critics said the agreement could aggravate the plight of millions suffering from AIDS, malaria and other grave diseases.

Kenya's ambassador to the WTO Amina Chawahir Mohamed declared: "It's good news for Africa, and especially good news for the people of Africa who so desperately need access to affordable medicine."

But a vocal Kenyan medical lobby warned the deal would make it impossible for them to manufacture generic drugs in the future.

"This deal will forever make it difficult for developing nations to promote their own pharmaceutical industries and manufacture generic drugs," Beryl Leach, of the Kenya Coalition for Access to Essential Medicines, told AFP in Nairobi.

Some international humanitarian organisations expressed doubt the agreement could deliver relief as promised.

"Today's WTO agreement that is ostensibly intended to get drugs to the poorest countries does not provide a workable solution," Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres said in a joint statement.

"Today's deal was designed to offer comfort to the US and the Western pharmaceutical industry. Unfortunately, it offers little comfort for poor patients. Global patent rules will continue to drive up the price of medicines," said Ellen T' Hoen of MSF.

"What (WTO) members do not seem to take into account is that the burdensome system being put in place does nothing to ensure that generic production will happen in the future," said Celine Charveriat of Oxfam.

"Rather, developing countries will have little alternative to the high prices and long-term monopolies of brand-name pharmaceutical companies," she argued.

However, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick emphasised the agreement had struck the "right balance" between drug patents and access to medicines.

"Striking the right balance between addressing the needs of the poorest countries while ensuring intellectual property protections that foster the future development of lifesaving drugs had eluded us... I'm very pleased that today we've been able to strike this balance," he said in a statement issued in Geneva.

Zoellick said the deal was "a big step forward, removing a major hurdle to a successful ministerial in Cancun and the overall Doha negotiations."

WTO trade ministers will meet in the Mexican resort of Cancun on Sept 10-14 to try to kick-start stalled negotiations.

The meeting comes midway in the round launched in Doha in November 2001 aimed at dismantling trade barriers by the end of 2004.

The EU's trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy, hailed the deal.

"The EU strongly welcomes the WTO deal... it shows the WTO can respond flexibly and pragmatically to the concerns of developing countries and contribute to the fight against killer diseases," he said.

"For countries with no capacity to produce medicines, importing generics is now a right protected by the WTO."

Copyright 2003 AFX News Limited. All Rights Reserved.

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