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HEALTH REPORT — September 10, 2003: WTO Drug Agreement - 2003-09-09

This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

The World Trade Organization has agreed to permit poorer nations to import low-cost drugs to fight diseases such as AIDS and malaria.

World trade rules permit countries with their own drug industry to suspend patent rights in a public health emergency. The rules let those countries produce cheaper versions of drugs normally protected against copying. But the existing rules said nothing about the many developing countries without their own drug industry.

The agreement changes world trade law. Nations unable to make the low-cost versions themselves will now have the right to import them.

W-T-O members have been discussing the question for almost two years. The one-hundred-forty-six member General Council came to the agreement after days of debate. African nations appealed to the group. They said thousands of people were dying as the delegates were considering the issue.

The agreement is designed to prevent any profit making by nations that would produce the cheaper generic drugs, such as Brazil and India. American drug companies had feared that low-cost copies of medicines would end up being sold in richer nations. The W-T-O says measures will be put in place to make sure low-cost drugs sold to poor countries are not also sold in richer ones.

The American drug industry says the agreement will help poor nations while meeting demands that W-T-O members do more to fight deadly diseases like AIDS. W-T-O officials praised the agreement as historic.

But a number of health groups criticized it. They say it places too many conditions on countries that would use the system. Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam said in a joint statement that the agreement does not provide what they called a "workable solution."

The World Health Organization urged members of the World Trade Organization to put the plan into effect as soon as possible. But the new director-general of the W-H-O said the agreement will fail unless poor countries improve their health systems.

Doctor Lee Jong-wook called the agreement a good development. But he told Reuters news agency that a lack of drugs is not the biggest problem. He said there are simply not enough doctors and nurses to do the job.

This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Nancy Steinbach.