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DEVELOPMENT REPORT – November 26, 2001: WTO Agreement on Drug Patents - 2001-11-23

This is the VOA Special English Development Report.

Developing countries won a major victory at the World Trade Organization meeting earlier this month in Doha, Qatar. The battle was over the rights of poor nations to produce life-saving drugs during health emergencies.

More than one-hundred-forty countries attended the Doha conference. The group finally reached an agreement after more than a week of debate. It permits developing countries to give so-called “compulsory licenses” during national health emergencies. A compulsory license requires drug manufacturers to share their inventions with competing companies.

When a drug company develops a cure or treatment for a disease, it seeks special rights to make and sell the product. This special permission is called a patent. A patent prevents other companies from making the same drug for a number of years while the patent is in force.

Under compulsory licenses, other companies are permitted to produce low-cost generic drugs. These are copies of costly medicines patented by large drug companies.

In the past, a lack of understanding existed over the rights of developing countries to give compulsory licenses. However, this issue was settled by the Doha agreement. Developing countries are now able to give compulsory licenses when dealing with public health crises. These include AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and diseases likely to spread quickly through the population.

Poor countries are not able to pay for costly drugs to treat diseases such as AIDS. So the debate over drug patents is between rich and poor countries. International drug companies in Europe and the United States oppose the Doha agreement. They say it will prevent drug companies from seeking cures for diseases that affect the poor. Drug companies say they are forced to charge high prices for medicines to pay for the high cost of their research. Drug patents are important because they help companies recover money spent developing new medicines.

Developing countries, such as India, Brazil and South Africa, support the Doha agreement. They say poor nations should be able to produce or import less costly generic drugs in times of health crises. They say the goal is to reduce the cost of drugs to treat diseases that kill millions of poor people every year.

This VOA Special English Development Report was written by Jill Moss.