|Vol.7, No.35, 27.9.01, p15
DRUG firms are facing a lone battle against attempts to water down international agreements on intellectual property rights after the music industry rejected their bid to launch a joint campaign.
There is increasing concern among pharmaceutical bosses, amid signs of European Commission support for a revision of the rules at November's ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Doha, Qatar.
The industry is trying to rally support as an unofficial Commission paper, seen by European Voice, calls for the rules to be implemented "in such a way as to ensure access to affordable medicines for all".
But music and computer software industries, the other traditional defenders of intellectual property rights, say they have been put off from intervening by drug firms' handling of disputes over drug patents.
Under pressure from public opinion, major drug companies earlier this year withdrew legal action against the South African government over imports of Indian-made 'generic' copies of successful anti-AIDS treatments.
Music industry representatives turned down suggestions of a joint campaign when approached by EU pharmaceutical federation EFPIA at a recent Geneva meeting.
"We don't want to work with them, with all the bad press they've been getting," said Yolanda Smits, senior advisor at the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). "South Africa shouldn't have happened to start with."
Software makers are also steering well clear. "I suspect we're not going to be involved in the campaign," said Francisco Mingoranse of the Business Software Alliance. "We would turn them down as well, frankly."
Key to the South African dispute was the 1994 WTO agreement on 'TRIPs' - trade-related intellectual property rights - soon to enter force in many of the world's least developed countries. These are set to be the focus of the upcoming WTO meeting, at which developing countries will push to get the agreements loosened. This would make it easier for them to produce generic drugs when faced with disease epidemics.
The Commission's paper echoes these calls with proposals allowing national authorities to release technical information on patented drugs to the 'copying' industry. The document also calls for consideration of developing countries' demands for extensions to the transition periods agreed for adoption of TRIPs legislation into national law.
"We're fairly receptive to the issues that the developing countries are bringing up," said Anthony Gooch, spokesman for Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy. "Our experts are working on wording which we hope might bridge the gap between developing countries and others with more hardline positions."
Pharmaceutical industry leaders are concerned by reports that the final EU submission may advocate a new general principle proclaiming that the right to health care should prevail over commercial considerations.
"Such abstract wording could provide an excuse in any case to provide compulsory licensing," said EFPIA spokesman Christophe de Callataÿ. He warned against any relaxation of TRIPs, which he said would "discourage research for new treatments and drugs in the developed and developing worlds".
The number of new AIDS drugs in development was already in decline, he said, as a result of attacks on their makers' intellectual property rights.
Drug firms are facing a lone battle against attempts to water down international agreements on intellectual property rights after the music industry rejected their bid to launch a joint campaign.
|Business and Industry, Internal Markets