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WTO mulls drug patent issues

LONDON, England (CNN) - Developing countries have put their case for access to cheap medicines at a special meeting of members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The unprecedented talks in Geneva were prompted by the growing controversy over the cost of drugs to treat illnesses such as AIDS in developing countries.

New drugs are covered by international patent rules for some 20 years. This means they remain expensive, making it virtually impossible for patients in poor countries to get access to them.

A group of 50 countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America said in a statement that current patent rules should not "undermine the legitimate right of WTO members to formulate their own public health policies and implement them."

Under present rules, WTO member countries - except for a few of the poorest ones - must protect international patents, including those on new drugs.

This means they have to pay whatever price the pharmaceutical firms demand.

The problem has been highlighted by the spread of HIV and AIDS which hit the developing world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, very hard.

Many drugs used to treat the condition are still under patent and therefore expensive.

Call for clarification

WTO rules allow countries to ignore patent procedures in some circumstances such as health emergencies, but developing countries would like to see the rules clarified on this.

In speeches to the meeting, several developing countries called for a declaration on clarification at the next WTO ministerial meeting in November.

WTO director-general Mike Moore acknowledged that while patent rules were necessary, poor countries needed to be confident about the flexibility provisions within the regulations.

Western countries agreed that some clarification was needed, but warned that weakening patent rules would undermine research into new drugs.

"Without the economic incentives provided by patent systems, there would be far fewer drugs available," said U.S. delegate Claude Burcky.

The proposals put to the meeting were described as "modest" by charity Oxfam. The charity has called for a more radical reassessment of the regulations.

Spokesman Matthew Grainger said he had been encouraged by the meeting. "Some positive noises were made, particularly by European countries, that they would support looking at the rules again," he told CNN.

"Even the U.S., which had been expected to take a very hard line, appeared to have taken on board some of what was said," Grainger added.

Court case

Patent issues were put under the spotlight earlier this year by the court case against the South African government when the drug industry tried to stop it importing cheaper generic versions of patented drugs.

The 39 pharmaceutical companies that were involved, dropped the case, but not before international opinion had been left with the impression that the industry was more concerned with protecting its patents than in the health crisis in developing countries.

Oxfam say the rules are so vague that many countries have refrained from using their right to make or import cheaper versions of patented drugs because of fears that the industry could take them to court too.

• Oxfam

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