WTO on brink of breakthrough on drug patent talks

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Negotiators at the World Trade Organisation summit were on the brink of a groundbreaking deal last night that would make it easier for poor countries to break patents on drugs needed to treat some of the world's most horrific health problems.

If approved it will be the first breakthrough towards launching a new round of talks on further trade liberalisation. However, the WTO's director-general, Mike Moore, struck a cautious note saying: "Bluntly, there are too many areas of substantial difference."

According to a draft text, the WTO will rule that an existing legal framework governing drug patents "does not and should not prevent members from taking actions to protect public health".

This marks a significant victory for developing countries that fought against a proposal by the US that would limit the power to override a patent in "public health crises such as HIV/AIDS and other pandemics".

Hope was growing that the concession was part of wider horse-trading over other controversial issues such as farm subsidies, environmental protection, access to textile markets and labour standards. Mr Moore said: "This signals the beginning, I hope, of negotiations of a range of issues wide enough to provide comfort."

Aid agencies that had urged the WTO to ensure its rules allowed governments to get hold of cheap drugs gave the deal a mixed welcome. George Gelber, head of public policy at the Catholic aid agency Cafod, said: "Protecting public health is a very broad phrase. I think they have done very well."

But Michael Bailey, a senior policy adviser at Oxfam UK, said: "The statement as it stands would be a political statement with little bearing on any future litigation."

Meanwhile, the European Union came under fire for its tactics during the negotiations. The EU tabled a last minute draft that members could address "public health crises without prejudice to the rights and obligations of members". Oxfam's Mr Bailey attacked that as "extremely unhelpful and negative".

The rules over patents are covered by an existing pact, the Trade Related Intellectual Property Agreements (Trips) that protects a pharmaceutical company's exclusive rights to its own drugs for 20 years.