Wednesday September 19, 2001

Drug Companies Warn AIDS Research Could Dry Up

By Robert Evans

GENEVA (Reuters) - Leaders of the international pharmaceutical industry warned on Wednesday that research and development into AIDS drugs could dry up if current global trading rules on patents were loosened.

The warning was issued as delegates to the World Trade Organization (WTO) met to discuss whether the body's TRIPS patents and copyright pact should be amended to make it easier for poor countries to get medicines at low cost.

The controversial TRIPS accord, the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights, sets strict conditions on when patents on drugs and medicines, normally in force for 20 years, can be put aside.

"More flexibility in TRIPS would be disastrous for continuing investment in research and development on AIDS,'' said Dr. Rolf Krebs, Chairman of the German pharma giant Boehringer Ingelheim and president of the industry's global body IFPMA.

And Harvey Bale, IFPMA's director general, said easing up on the terms of the 1994 TRIPS accord could open the door for governments to abuse patents on all protected drugs by declaring national health emergencies when none existed.

No decisions are expected at this week's meeting, but developing countries will press their campaign for change at a WTO ministerial meeting set for Qatar in November.

Both Bale and Krebs said such action could be aimed at boosting the position of national firms, who had made no contribution to drug development but would be the beneficiaries of compulsory licensing--or forced cession of patents.

If investors saw the future of the industry threatened by such a change, they would insist that firms focus on other diseases that caused less controversy, like cancer, both said.

"So it is important to maintain a stable basis for this industry to invest, not just for the sake of the shareholders but also in the public interest,'' declared Bale.

The number of anti-AIDS compounds under development, he said, had already declined over the past three years as a campaign against the big companies had unfolded.


Countries in the WTO, which currently has 142 members, can be taken to the trade groups' dispute settlement body by trading partners who believe patents belonging to companies under their jurisdiction are being unjustifiably violated.

But poorer developing countries, backed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Oxfam and Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), argue that existing rules put AIDS and other patented drugs out of their financial reach, leaving millions of victims to suffer and die.

"The essential flaw of TRIPS is to oblige all countries, rich and poor, to grant at least 20 years' patent protection for new medicines, thereby delaying production of inexpensive generic substitutes upon which developing-country health services and poor people depend,'' said a statement from Oxfam.

After widespread pressure from NGOs around the world, major drug companies earlier this year withdrew a case against the South African government over imports of so-called ''generic'' anti-AIDS treatments manufactured in India.

During the summer, the United States also withdrew a WTO complaint on compulsory licensing against Brazil which activists--and the Brazilian government--said was aimed at stopping it from getting cheaper drugs for its successful anti-AIDS program.

TRIPS has not yet gone into force in India or Brazil, a fact which enables local manufacturers to produce generics--slightly adjusted copies--of patented drugs and sell them more cheaply abroad under different names.