Drugs for the poor

Members of the World Trade Organization meet today to grapple with poor countries' access to cheap medicines. Their job is to fill in the fine print of last year's summit in Qatar, which concluded, to the consternation of the pharmaceutical lobby, that developing countries should be able to buy cheap generic copies of patented medicines when battling health crises. In the run-up to today's talks, the lobbyists have been running to Congress with their usual arguments: That strict fealty to the principle of patents matters more than granting the exceptions needed to shore up the patent system's legitimacy. The Bush administration is resisting the lobbyists' extremism, but it still listens to the industry more than it should. In a recent letter to African governments, an official from the U.S. Trade Representative's Office laid out the administration's preferred fine print. Poor countries that want to import generics should be allowed to do so; but this option should focus "on the serious epidemics faced by Africans -- HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis." Shouldn't poor countries also be allowed to import cheap drugs for other diseases? The United States appears reluctant. "Broadening the solution to cover any public health problem, as some are advocating, would divert attention and resources away from these epidemics," the official's letter said. The official also took restrictive views on two other points of contention. Should poor countries be able to import cheap versions of medical equipment as well as pharmaceuticals? "Expanding the products covered to include the full range of diagnostic products and all other health-related items diverts attention from the key issue of access to essential drugs," according to the letter. Should "middle-income" countries, which often have big concentrations of poverty, be able to import cheap medicines? The letter said no again. The president's trade representative, Robert Zoellick, needs to soften those positions at today's WTO meeting. From a policy point of view, there is no good argument for allowing patents to restrict access to medicine in poor countries and those just climbing out of poverty; patents generally make sense only in richer countries, where consumers can afford the new therapies produced in response to the incentive of patent-protected profits. From a political point of view, a hard line on patents would be disastrous. The current round of global trade talks was launched last year only because suspicious developing countries were won over by concessions on intellectual property. If the developing countries now feel they have been cheated, the chances of concluding the trade round productively will dim.