WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - The World Trade Organization agreed yesterday to give poor nations greater access to inexpensive lifesaving medicine by altering international trade rules.
After several days of nonstop negotiations, the trade organization reached unanimous agreement yesterday morning, as its meeting was concluding, after speeches by several African delegates who said such a deal could save millions of lives.
Under the accord, poor countries will be able to import generic versions of expensive patented medicines, buying them from countries such as India and Brazil without running afoul of trade laws protecting patent rights.
African countries and their supporters in nonprofit health groups have been campaigning for such an agreement for years, saying that moral and political arguments outweigh commercial considerations in the face of epidemics such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
"This will absolutely save millions of lives that would be lost without it," Faizel Ismail, South Africa's permanent representative at the World Trade Organization, said in an interview from Geneva.
The breakthrough came early last week when the United States agreed to the original proposal it rejected in December. Backed by the powerful American pharmaceutical lobby, the Bush administration had prevented the trade organization from adopting the measure, saying it should be restricted to a handful of diseases and limited to certain countries. The European Union and Switzerland, the other two delegations representing advanced pharmaceutical companies, had accepted the proposal.
Last week the United States accepted the original proposal, but included the demand that such generic medicines could be imported to cure any life-threatening disease, so long as it was a public health emergency.
"The final piece of the jigsaw has fallen into place," said Supachai Panitchpakdi, director general of the trade organization. "It proves ... that the organization can handle humanitarian as well as trade concerns."
Several delegates said they were moved by the speeches made by Panitchpakdi and African delegates, who argued that 2.4 million Africans had died from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis since the agreement was rejected in December.
The United States, however, agreed to the accord only after it won acceptance of an additional statement setting out measures to ensure that countries would not take advantage of it and reap commercial profits rather than meet public health needs.
Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, said in a statement that the Bush administration, "working with other WTO members and our pharmaceutical industry, has strived to bridge the many differences and sought to develop with others constructive ideas about how to move forward."
But some public health groups said the new statement would doom the accord because it had enough bureaucratic red tape to discourage poor nations from importing the drugs.
"Today's deal was designed to offer comfort to the U.S. and the Western pharmaceutical industry," said Ellen 't Hoen of Doctors Without Borders, in a statement released from Paris.
The countries most affected by the agreement were in the forefront of the lobbying effort last week. India and Brazil, which manufacture cheap generic medicines, and South Africa and Kenya, nations that need them, pleaded with delegates late into Friday.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America issued a statement yesterday praising the agreement, saying, "Now that this issue has been resolved, governments and the public health community can concentrate on the immense practical problems of delivering needed medicines to patients in the world's poorest countries."