Brazil wins international backing for drugs policy

by Gustavo Capdevila

Geneva, 23 Apr 2001 (IPS) - Brazil has obtained international support for its policy of ensuring free access to the latest medications for its citizens living with HIV/AIDS, a measure sharply challenged by the United States.

The adoption of the resolution, a Brazilian initiative, by the UN Commission on Human Rights, with 52 of the 53 members of the UN’s maximum human rights body voting in favour, and the US as the sole abstention, comes on top of a series of actions and declarations that have enlivened the international debate in recent weeks about the validity of pharmaceutical patents that prevent individuals who are ill and poor from obtaining low-cost drugs.

One of the prominent episodes of this controversy took place last week in South Africa, when 39 transnational pharmaceutical corporations, under heavy pressure from the international community, decided to withdraw their lawsuit against that country’s legislation to allow generic drug imports and local manufacture.

In February, the US got the World Trade Organisation (WTO), by the negative consensus rule, to establish a special panel in the dispute settlement process to rule if Brazilian laws on inexpensive drugs violate multilateral treaties.

But the related legal proceedings at the WTO have ground to a halt because the US has not pushed for the designation of the three members to the panel.  Diplomatic sources believe the US is waiting for the controversy on pharmaceutical patents to dissipate before pushing the WTO Secretariat to name the panel members.

The decision by the UN Commission on Human Rights benefits Brazil, according to diplomatic sources, because it urges countries to establish policies to promote the availability of pharmaceuticals and medical technologies to treat pandemics such as HIV/AIDS.

The Brazilian representative had asked the UN Commission to establish unequivocal principles and objectives to guide governments’ national and international actions in the pharmaceutical arena.

The ambassador from Norway stated that the question of access to low-cost medications goes beyond HIV/AIDS and extends to all diseases.

“Access to drugs carries the features of what we now refer to as ‘global public goods.’ Yet, drugs are largely manufactured and marketed as ‘global private goods’ by large multinational companies,” said the Norwegian delegate.

The United States, the only abstainee in the vote, stressed its commitment to the fight against AIDS and pointed to its history in that area, which includes efforts to create UNAIDS, the UN’s joint programme dedicated to fighting the deadly disease.

However, said US ambassador George Moose,the illness requires something more than simply a medical response, and called for a multi-dimensional approach, including efforts in prevention, treatment and care, in addition to medical responses through the use of pharmaceuticals.

“That effort is not aided by superficial discussions in the Commission on Human Rights, which lacks the expertise to deal seriously with the issue,” said the US diplomat.

While the resolution approved by the UN Commission asks countries to adopt policies on AIDS-fighting drugs that conform to the applicable international laws, and global accords signed by the countries - a reference to the WTO and its TRIPS - Moose predicted that the resolution would be interpreted by many as casting doubt upon multilateral accords intended to protect intellectual property rights.

Moose agreed with the arguments put forth by the pharmaceutical transnationals that “the only way we are going to encourage the investment that is needed to develop new drugs is by protecting intellectual property rights.”

The effects on human health of international regulations on protecting medical patents is an item on the agenda for discussion in May at the annual meeting of the World Health Organisation, and in June, at the meeting of the TRIPS Council at the WTO. – SUNS4882

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