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WHO and WTO to hold expert consultations on cheap drugs

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 16 Mar 2001 - The World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization are holding a workshop in Norway (at Hosbjor, outside of Oslo) on what is described as an initiative on how to improve access of poor countries to essential medicines at affordable costs.

The workshop is to be a closed meeting of experts, and on how to achieve public health objectives within the framework of the WTO and the trade and intellectual property rules.

The move appears to be aimed at reducing the pressure from civil society

for changing the TRIPS agreement, focussing on the global pharmaceutical industry and the prices it charges for drugs. Though the current drive on this has been highlighted by the plight of HIV/AIDS patients, and focussing on pharmaceuticals and the cost of drugs, the entire TRIPS debate is turning in the direction of the issue of TRIPS being not a trade-liberalising measure, but a trade-restrictive measure.

Trade ideologues like Jagdish Bhagwati and Prof. T.N. Srinvisan, have all come out about the mistake of having placed TRIPS and intellectual property protection within the trading system.

And while they have not specifically called for taking it out, there are other voices, particularly of a broad coalition of NGOs, who initiated the ‘shrink or sink’ campaign directed at the WTO after Seattle, who are demanding that TRIPS be taken out of the WTO itself.

WTO head Moore and the WHO head Brundtland have both been speaking about making pharmaceutical firms' drugs available in poorer developing countries at reduced prices. Some pharmaceutical companies are also talking about being willing to consider these, but insist in return on changes in TRIPS to prevent parallel imports, in effect enabling them to segment the global markets and oligopolise them to charge what the market could bear - as judged by the companies.

Several of the NGOs campaigning on the wider issues have not been taken in by these tactics, and seem to be resolved to press ahead with their campaigns against the WTO, and taking out of the WTO issues not directly related to trade, and ensure a trade that is not only not distortive of trading principles but of the development perspective and principles.

It remains to be seen whether the Moore and Brundtland initiative will divert attention from this.-SUNS4857

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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