Saturday, August 23, 2003

International intellectual property rights are one of the two Big Issues for the Global South at the upcoming WTO ministerial meeting in Canc´┐Żn. Everyone thought the North and South had reached a compromise on the question of global drug access back in Doha in 2001, but the US lobbying group PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) made sure that didn't happen. Now, just two-and-a-half weeks away, the word on the street is that a draft deal between the US and several key Southern countries is in the works.
Trade diplomats and industry executives said negotiators from the US and several developing countries were in sight of a compromise to end a deadlock that has divided the WTO for almost two years. A draft deal must still be approved by governments of the developing countries involved.

If they all accept the plan in time, it will be submitted to a meeting of the WTO's ruling general council next week, where broader support will be sought.

"We are optimistic of finding a solution," said Fazil Ismail, chief WTO representative of South Africa, which has played a pivotal role in the talks.

The WTO ambassadors of Brazil and India, also crucial figures, declined to predict whether a final agreement would be reached.
The chattiness of South Africa versus the stoicism of Brazil and India is notable. South Africa is a country which does not have its own drug industry and therefore must import its pharmaceuticals from abroad -- preferably generic drugs from other Southern countries which are much cheaper than from the North. Brazil and India, on the other hand, are successful producers of generic drugs and often use compulsory licensing to force pharmaceutical corporations to work their patents locally rather than force these poor countries to import from the US or Europe. With the US on one side and Brazil and India on the other, importers like South Africa are the fence-sitters. Which way they go will heavily influence the politics of this entire issue.

Back when the United States was a developing country, folks like Thomas Jefferson simply stole intellectual property valuable to the advancement of the country. Of course, the US Founding Fathers didn't have the WTO to worry about back then. As recently as the 1970s most countries did not recognize product patents on pharmaceuticals. India, for example, recognized only process patents until forced by the WTO in 1998 to recognize product patents. Back then, only processes could be patented, so if some innovative firm could produce an existing drug in a novel way, they were rewarded rather than crushed by monopolists.

Unfortunately, the prospect of simply eliminating pharmaceutical patent regulations for the poorest countries in the world is not on the table -- but it should be. Patents, after all, are government enforced monopoly rights which must be balanced against the interests of the public. The poorest countries in the world should not have to pay anything at all to monopolists for the "privilege" to purchase drugs. If Brazilians can do it cheaper than Americans, I say let the Brazilians do it. Or is this fight really about the US government and PhRMA trying to stop the growth and development of the pharmaceutical industry in the Global South except on their own terms -- in short, about keeping the South continually dependent on the North?

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