A Brazilian proposal at the weekend has raised hopes of a breakthrough in
the World Trade Organisation's deadlocked talks on poor countries' access
to essential medicines.
Brazil unveiled its initiative, intended to meet US concerns on the issue,
during a three-day informal meeting in Tokyo of trade and agriculture
But the meeting has also exposed deep differences over how far the Doha
world trade round should seek to liberalise farm trade.
A proposal last week by Stuart Harbinson, chairman of the WTO agriculture
negotiations, to eliminate export subsidies and cut tariffs by as much as
60 per cent was seen as too radical by the European Union and Japan but
criticised as not going far enough by the US and other leading agricultural
The ministers nonetheless called Mr Harbinson's paper a "catalyst" for
their talks. They have asked him to re-draft it before a March 31 WTO
deadline for establishing the modalities, or parameters, of the planned
Mr Harbinson defended his paper, saying WTO members had yet to hold serious
negotiations on agriculture in Geneva. "The whole purpose of this [paper]
is to spark a fresh debate," he said.
Brazil suggested that the World Health Organisation be asked to verify
whether poor countries seeking compulsory licences for drugs had the
domestic capacity to make them, thus aiming to narrow differences blocking
an agreement on the supply of essential medicines.
The EU backed the suggestion. "It could help solve this uncertainty on what
does a country without manufacturing capacity mean," said Pascal Lamy, EU
trade commissioner. "It could contribute to solving this confidence gap
which we still have."
All WTO members except the US said in December they would support a draft
agreement designed to prevent the organisation's patent protection rules
from stopping the supply of essential medicines to poor countries suffering
serious public health problems.
The US pharmaceuticals industry influenced Washington's move out of concern
that the draft agreement would enable other countries to legally flout
patents on a wide range of its products.
Breaking the deadlock on medicines and achieving progress in the
agriculture talks are crucial to the fate of the Doha round. Supachai
Panitchpakdi, WTO director-general, warned ministers at the start of this
weekend's meeting that the negotiations faced "imminent gridlock".
In addition to Mr Lamy and Franz Fischler, EU agriculture commissioner,
ministers from the US and about 20 other countries participated in the meeting.
- 182 Health