by Gustavo Gonzalez
(IPS) SANTIAGO --
is at stake is a matter of life and death, says Silvia Moriana, representative of Doctors Without Borders in Bolivia, in reference to the provisions on intellectual property rights and drugs patents in the negotiations of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has warned against the efforts by the United States to include in the FTAA rules that would annul the advances made in improving access of poor countries to low-cost medicines, particularly as stipulated in the Doha Declaration of the World Trade Organization.
A WTO agreement signed shortly before the fifth ministerial conference held in Cancun, Mexico in September, recognizes the right of poor countries to import generic medicines, which are less expensive than the trademarked brands of the big laboratories, in situations of public health emergency, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Protection of intellectual property rights is one of the hot issues in the draft of the FTAA agreement to be discussed Thursday and Friday in Miami, during the 8th conference of trade ministers from the 34 countries of the western hemisphere, all except Cuba.
If the "Alaska-to-Cape Horn" free trade treaty includes stricter rules on intellectual property, it would limit governments' ability to turn to generic drugs to fight widespread, costly diseases -- malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS -- ultimately threatening the health of the 800 million people in the hemisphere, according MSF, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.
In late August the humanitarian group launched a campaign charging that medicines must not be a luxury, and an international petition "that has been signed by tens of thousands of people around the world and by more than 70 organizations," MSF spokeswoman Isabel Leal told IPS.
According to the principles established at the WTO ministerial conference in Doha in 2001, the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) must not stand in the way of public health and the right of developing countries to issue compulsory licenses or to use generic medications in tackling diseases like HIV/AIDS.
Compulsory licensing allows a government to temporarily override a patent and produce generic copies of a medicine, but must pay royalties to the patent holder. Nevertheless, generic copies are much cheaper to produce than brand-name drugs.
Brazil, one of the promoters of the WTO agreement on access to medications, has an aggressive policy to provide drugs and treatment to its citizens with HIV/AIDS. From 1996 to 2002 it prevented 90,000 AIDS deaths and 358,000 hospitalizations, with the government saving an estimated $2 billion.
But such a success story would be impossible under the FTAA proposals, says Doctors Without Borders.
Thanks to generic drugs, the cost of antiretroviral treatment for a person with AIDS in Guatemala as of last July was $352 a year, compared to $686 with patented medicines. In July 2002, that same treatment with new medications cost $4,198 a year.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are 1.9 million people living with HIV, the virus that is the precursor to AIDS. But the region also faces endemic diseases, particularly among the poorer population, such as Chagas disease (trypanosomiasis americana), malaria, dengue and leishmaniasis.
Those who oppose the Doha agreement on access to drugs maintain that the proliferation of generics would discourage scientific research by the big pharmaceutical laboratories, essential for discovering cures for disease. Generic drugs would cut into the drug companies' profits, they assert.
That is the position held by some negotiators in the FTAA who want to beef up intellectual property protections, arguing that it will create incentives to develop new medications, says MSF.
But it is evident, says the humanitarian organization, that greater protections will drive up prices without promoting the research necessary for diseases like Chagas, which do not have lucrative markets because they primarily affect the poor.
Chagas disease kills 50,000 people in the region every year, 18 million live with the parasite in their blood and some 100 million people are at risk of infection in 21 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
For this "disease of the poor," the world's pharmaceutical industry has not put a new medicine on the market in five years.
MSF has projects underway for people with Chagas in Bolivia, Guatemala and Nicaragua. According to the Paris-based group, a 2001 study found that only one in 11 pharmaceutical companies is conducting any research on the disease.
"The United States is putting pressure on the FTAA negotiations and on the bilateral talks in order to introduce 'TRIPS-Plus,' to effectively bypass what was achieved in Doha," Claudio Lara, a spokesman of the Santiago-based Consumers International-Latin America, told IPS.
In the free trade treaty with Chile, to enter into force Jan. 1, 2004, the United States has already done that, and in the FTAA, "TRIPS-Plus would mean that no effort would be made towards creating new provisions for implementing compulsory licensing" of medications, says Lara.
The U.S. proposal restricts compulsory licensing to four circumstances, limits implementation to public entities, and it is feared it would restrict parallel imports of medications, said the Consumers International representative.
"The pharmaceutical transnationals are engaged in a major offensive to reverse the Doha Declaration. The lobbying and pressures on governments intensified and the result was the adjustment of the agreement prior to the WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun," says Lara.
The rules that Washington wants to negotiate under the FTAA framework imply "an expansion of drug patents and, concretely, the extension of protections, which could translate into abuse by the pharmaceutical labs to hike up drug prices," says MSF's Moriana.
That would mean "for the majority of the population it would be impossible to access medications that are often -- as is the case with AIDS -- the difference between life and death," she said.
Moriana underscored MSF's call upon Latin American countries, made during last weekend's Ibero-American Summit, to oppose any modification to the Doha agreement in the FTAA treaty negotiations.
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