Sydney Summit a step back for access to medicines, but it is not the end of the story

"The irony is that while developing-country delegates in Sydney have been pressurised to back down, world opinion is swinging in their favour," says spokesperson for Medecins Sans Frontieres Kathryn Dinh.
Sydney - Trade ministers meeting in Sydney today proposed a reform to WTO patent rules which supposedly allows poor countries to import cheap generic medicines but which in practice could be unworkable. "This is a setback in the fight to put public health before corporate profit, but the battle is not over," said Jeff Atkinson, a spokesperson for Oxfam International. The major problem is that the country supplying cheap generic copies of drugs needed to combat AIDS, TB and any other disease, would have to agree to override the relevant patent. This makes the needy importing country unacceptably dependent on the political will of another government, and increases the administrative burden. Potential suppliers would also be under enormous pressure from industrialised countries such as the US and EU not to help out. If this proposal is accepted by the wider WTO membership, an insurmountable barrier to getting cheaper medicines is replaced by numerous lower ones, argue the international aid agencies Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières. But this 25-nation summit is informal - the real decision will be taken by all 144 WTO member states over the coming month in Geneva. "The irony is that while developing-country delegates in Sydney have been pressurised to back down, world opinion is swinging in their favour," says spokesperson for Medecins Sans Frontieres Kathryn Dinh. "The proposition from the European Commission that won the day in Sydney has been unravelling at home, with the French, Belgium, Dutch and European Parliaments supporting the proposals favoured by many developing countries. And leading US newspapers are now vocal critics of US policy on this issue." "Many people in the Third World and aid agencies such as Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières were hoping that Sydney would act in the spirit of WTO commitments made at Doha. As it is, they have been disappointed to see their trade ministers pressurised by powerful countries into accepting a political fudge in a behind-closed-doors meeting," said Mr. Atkinson, "but the needs of millions of sick and needy people will not be set aside so easily."