Misanet.com / IPS, 5 April - The group of African countries that belong to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is calling for a special session of the council on intellectual property rights to discuss medical patents and access to low-cost medications - a bid to ensure treatment for populations suffering from HIV/AIDS and other epidemics.
Tadeous Chifamba, Zimbabwe's representative before the WTO, stated that the international trade body "cannot afford to ignore an issue that has aroused public interest" around the world. Such widespread concern has been stimulated "by the extremely high prices of some medicines, including those needed to treat serious and life-threatening diseases," he said.
Diplomats from the African member-countries of the WTO emphasised the need to clarify the role of intellectual property rights protection when dealing with pandemics such as HIV/AIDS. To that end, they are demanding that the Geneva-based WTO convene an extraordinary session of the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
The meeting should be held prior to the WTO's annual recess in August and the debate agenda must include TRIPS, pharmaceutical patents and access to low-cost medications, affirmed the African negotiators.
In an informal meeting of the TRIPS Council, Chifamba stressed that the results of the requested special session would serve as a basis for the preparatory process for the WTO's Fourth Ministerial Conference, to be held in November in Qatar. The 140 members of the WTO have already initiated discussions to draft the agenda for the Qatar conference and expect to have final version in July.
The world's industrialised powers, in particular the European Union (EU) and Japan, are engaged in an active campaign to convince developing countries to agree to a discussion in Qatar on convening a new round of multilateral trade negotiations.
Trade officials from Europe and Japan, which are under increasing pressure to end their protectionist measures in the agricultural sector, want the new round of talks to target new areas for liberalisation - such as investment, competition and public procurement - to boost their negotiating ability on agricultural matters.
Until now, the possibility of reviewing the international trade regimen on intellectual property, as the African delegation is demanding, had not been mentioned. Only a handful of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and certain economists had come before the WTO to suggest that intellectual property questions should be separated from the multilateral trade system.
The implementation of the TRIPS agreement began in 1996 for industrialised countries, and is to come into full force in 2006, extending then to developing countries. "Previous to TRIPS, countries were able to decide for themselves whether or not to exclude certain pharmaceutical products from patentability," Chifamba points out.
As such, many countries chose to do so on the grounds that "medicines are essential products required by their people to save lives, treat diseases and promote health," said the Zimbabwean diplomat.
The document presented by the African members of the WTO acknowledges that the TRIPS accord grants developing nations flexibility in implementing patents in a way that protects the health of their people.
Nevertheless, said Chifamba, recent legal challenges have been brought by the pharmaceutical industry and by some member countries before national courts and the WTO dispute settlement system. These cases "have highlighted lack of legal clarity on the interpretation and/or application of the relevant provisions of the TRIPS agreement," he added.