MANY A SLIP TWIXT CUP AND LIP: The cautionary tale of the access to drugs campaign

By Nicola Bullard*

 

BANGKOK, 5 Sept. -- AS Cancun approaches, it is timely to consider what can be learned from the access to drugs campaign launched in the lead-up 2001 WTO ministerial and which bore its bitter fruit last weekend in Geneva in an agreement which, according to many analysts, puts developing countries in a worse position than they were pre-Doha.

 

The access to drugs campaign, spearheaded by the international NGOs Oxfam and Medecins sans frontieres (MSF), was tremendously popular from the start. The issue was compelling - greedy pharmaceutical companies denying poor people dying from HIV-related illnesses access to affordable drugs through their manipulation of the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement of the WTO. The campaign had everything going for it: human suffering and injustice versus greed and power. It was almost inevitable that even the most powerful countries in the WTO would have to respond and in the war of attrition of Doha, the Political Declaration o­n TRIPS and Health was the bright spot in a declaration long o­n promises and short o­n action.

 

At the time, the campaigners were delighted, albeit cautious, realising even then that the "devil is in the detail" and that a political statement is a long way from a comprehensive solution.

 

INTO THE MAW OF THE WTO

 

In fact, the devil lurked in the corridors and board rooms. It took almost two years for the US, the EU and "big pharma" to cobble together a deal that protected their interests while appearing to be supporting the demands for justice for the sick and the poor.

 

The tricky and cynical agreement reached in Geneva last weekend increases the power of the WTO, places tremendous obstacles in the path of poor countries wishing to issue compulsory licences and enough disincentives and red tape to deter developing countries capable of manufacturing generics from exporting to poor countries. In short, the noose has been tightened and the loopholes closed, all to the advantage of the pharmaceutical companies who called the new agreement "balanced." Their restrained assessment of the outcomes should be read bearing in mind that their aggressive ambit claim, promoted as the US position -- that the scope of the diseases covered under the agreement should be limited to a handful of "eligible diseases" and a restricted list of countries - was ultimately resisted by developing countries.

 

"WORSE THAN BEFORE DOHA"

 

Activists close to the negotiations were bitterly disappointed. Jamie Love of the Consumer Project o­n Technology wrote "The persons who have negotiated this agreement have given the world a new model for explicitly endorsing protectionism." Oxfam and MSF called the solution "unworkable" saying the "deal was designed to offer comfort to the US and the Western pharmaceutical industry" and that "Global patent rules will continue to drive up the price of medicines." Catherine Dihn of MSF Australia said the agreement would lead to the "drying up" of generic products, leaving commercial products with no competition. "More people will die as a result of this agreement," she said. "The situation is worse now than it was pre-Doha." Supporting this view, the chief of the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance said "the policy is riddled with barriers which will make generic drugs more expensive than necessary."

 

WIN-WIN FOR BIG PHARMA

 

Big pharma's priority was to ensure their continued access to the lucrative markets of middle-income countries and to stamp out any possible competition from burgeoning pharmaceutical industries in countries such as Brazil and India. They won o­n both counts, while maintaining the illusion that poor countries would still have access to affordable drugs. The question is, of course, who is going to supply them when the new agreement prohibits production or export of generics for "commercial purposes".

 

WTO director general Supachai Panitchpakdi claimed it as proof that "the WTO can handle humanitarian as well as trade issues." But this flattering assessment sidesteps the political context in which the agreement was reached. Ten days before Cancun, the climate in Geneva was fractious and the WTO secretariat was dealing with testy governments, a back-log of unresolved issues and a long list of unfilled promises outstanding from Doha. Obviously, something must have "transpired" in the corridors which explains the almost unexplainable fact that several African countries suddenly became proponents of a "solution" which they must have known was unworkable, unbalanced and overly restrictive. The US and the EU had almost two years to listen to the demands of the developing countries yet they chose to railroad this through at the 11th hour. Why? To give the impression that the WTO agenda is "moving"? To force an agreement at a time when everyone is over-stretched and tensions are high? Whatever the reason, o­ne thing is for sure: the WTO has shown not that it is capable of dealing with humanitarian as well as trade issues, as Dr supachai claim, but that it will deal with humanitarian issues as if they were trade issues.

 

TRIPS IS THE PROBLEM

 

Access to affordable drugs is a fundamental right and the problem in TRIPS was, and remains, a real o­ne. However, the narrow focus of the access to drugs campaign detracted from the larger problem: the TRIPS agreement in its totality. TRIPS is possibly the most egregious of the WTO agreements (although the competition is tough) because it legalises monopolies, consolidates the power of corporations and potentially allows life itself to be patented and privately owned. Furthermore, the agreement was doomed to unravel because there was no commitment in Doha to change the "letter" of the TRIPS agreement. o­nce the "politics" in the political statement came into play back in Geneva the outcome was sadly predictable, save a miraculous shift in power relations.

 

The demand should be "TRIPS out of the WTO". This may not have the popular appeal of the "access to drugs" campaign but, in the end, it's the o­nly solution, and it's not too late. We have all learned a lot from this experience, not least that there seems to be no limit to the duplicity and rottenness of the WTO and the vested interests it protects.

 

* Nicola Bullard works with Focus o­n the Global South and is editor of Focus o­n Trade.