Faced with furious opposition from all the other 140 members of the World
Trade Organization, the US refused to relax global patent laws which keep the price of drugs beyond reach of most developing
Talks at the WTO's Geneva headquarters collapsed last night after the
White House ruled out a deal which would have permitted a full range of life-saving drugs to be imported into Africa, Asia
and Latin America at cut-price costs.
"The United States has announced it cannot join the consensus," the Brazilian
negotiator, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, said.
Sources in Geneva said last night that the negotiating strategy had come
straight from the White House, with Mr Cheney seizing the reins from America's trade negotiator, Robert Zoellick.
Mr Zoellick helped broker a deal on affordable drugs at the WTO's meeting
last year in Doha under which developing countries were promised they would be able to override patent laws in the interest
of public health.
However, America's drug industry has fought tooth and nail to impose
the narrowest possible interpretation of the Doha declaration, and wants to restrict the deal to drugs to combat HIV/Aids,
malaria, TB and a shortlist of other diseases unique to Africa.
Trade envoys said that the negotiations were likely to resume next month,
but last night's failure could push the entire Doha agreement, which covers everything from cutting farm subsidies to introducing
more competition into services, to the brink of collapse.
Earlier in the day America's drug industry had expressed confidence that
its lobbying of the Bush administration would pay off.
"I don't have any indication that the US is changing its position on
that at all," Shannon Herzfeld of PhRMA, the organization representing leading US pharmaceutical companies, told Inside US
Trade, the specialist trade magazine.
The industry argues that it spends billions a year on drug research and
that if copycat companies can override their patents and manufacture drugs at bargain prices, research will dry up.
However, aid agencies lobbying on behalf of poor countries pointed out
that the cut-price drugs will only be sold in countries which cannot afford to buy them at first-world prices. They accused
the White House of being in the pocket of big US drug corporations.
"The joke in Geneva this morning is that they couldn't make a decision
because the CEOs of Merck and Pfizer were still in bed," said Jamie Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology,
a US lobby group. "George Bush is arguing that diseases his own children receive treatment for are off limits to poor children
in poor countries."
Aside from HIV/Aids, drug companies do almost no research into the diseases
on the US shortlist. It excludes diseases like cancer, asthma and pneumonia which are killers in the developing as well as
the developed world.
"The drug industry is saying that any disease that is profitable [to
big pharmaceutical companies] won't be included," said Mr Love.
A deal on cheap drugs is seen as essential to keep developing countries
engaged in the trade round, which was started at the behest of the US and the EU just over a year ago.
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