GENEVA, Switzerland, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- Global talks on access to cheap drugs for the world's poorest nations to fight epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, were suspended Friday after rich countries spearheaded by the United States, and poor nations led by the African group, failed to narrow their differences.
Senior western diplomats fear unless the politically charged issue is resolved by the end of year deadline, it could poison the atmosphere in the World Trade Organization sponsored global trade talks.
Kenya's ambassador, Amina Mohamed, speaking on behalf of the Africa group, told a WTO session, she "is disappointed and frustrated by the progress so far."
She said the group fears it is unlikely the desired solution will be forthcoming, particularly to address the public health problems afflicting Africa.
Linnet F. Deily, deputy U.S. Trade Representative, told reporters "we're committed to supporting poor countries having access to drugs to fight epidemics and reaching a solution this year."
"Everyone needs to keep their eye on the ball -- our goal here is to fight the scourge of AIDS and other epidemics," Deily said.
The African group, backed by other developing nations such as India and Brazil, also leveled the charge that some of the proposals on the table are "a step back" from what trade ministers agreed last Nov. in Doha, Qatar.
Brazil, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Cuba also complained the proposals on the table are narrower then the Doha declaration.
"We're very concerned. There's a serious moral issue here at stake. There's a lack of concern about the situation faced by countries such as Botswana," Charles Ntwaagae, Botswana's ambassador, told United Press International.
Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are the most affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic with an estimated 29.4 million living with HIV at the end of 2002, which includes 3 million children under the age of 15. A total of 42 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS.
Sergio Marchi, Canada's top envoy to the WTO, told UPI "there's still lot of political goodwill" to take the Doha declaration and make it operational.
Marchi, a former Minister of Trade, said "the issue is too important for humanity...we must get it right."
He said its not over yet and suggested "lets stop the finger pointing and sharpen the pencils."
At issue is how to draw up a set of agreed rules that would allow countries without a domestic pharmaceutical production capability to resort to compulsory licensing in cases of epidemics considered a national emergency or extreme urgency.
In turn this system, if agreed, would allow the affected poor country to override drug patents in force, and import generic copies manufactured in other developing countries to meet its urgent public health needs.
WTO members are bitterly divided, however, over the scope of epidemics and pharmaceutical products and medical kits that would be covered.
Which countries would be entitled to benefit from the regime is another contentious issue.
The United States, Switzerland, and Japan, strongly supported by their pharmaceutical industries, favor limiting the scope of epidemics to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and any other serious epidemic.
The European Union, contrary to the stance of its pharmaceutical industry, which favors a position similar to the United States, has indicated it can be flexible on the epidemics that would be allowed.
But diplomats point out the EU is equally tough vis-a-vis poor nations on many of the outstanding legal issues.
Rich countries are concerned unless there is clarity that only poor developing countries would be beneficiaries, there is a risk the whole mechanism might be used to undermine the global patent system which underpins the incentive system to research and develop new varieties of drugs to combat illnesses.
Alan Holmer, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers America has noted "patents allow companies to invest the $800 million it takes, on average, to discover and bring to patients just one new medicine -- with seven out of 10 that reach the market failing to recoup average R&D costs."
Efforts to weaken patents "would constrain progress in curing disease," Holmer insists.
Moreover, the United States wants all industrialized countries and high income developing countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Israel, and countries in transition such as the Czech Republic, to declare they will not use the system to import cheap pharmaceutical copies.
"They should not exclude any developing country," an Asian ambassador told UPI.
Some WTO ambassadors and industry executives reckon the stance of Brazil and India to widen the scope of coverage is also partly to blame for the deadlock.
"The epidemics list in Doha declaration was an illustrative list but now there are attempts to expand it...it was never meant to be exhaustive," said a WTO ambassador from a developing country
Dr. Harvey Bale, secretary-general of the influential International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association told UPI in a telephone interview that Brazil and India are "trying to stretch the Doha declaration to be able to do any copy they want on any drug without any recourse to any review."
Bale said the 24,000 generic pharmaceutical companies in India and the state owned ministry of health companies in Brazil "need to copy to survive."
Both India and Brazil have repeatedly championed the right to public health is paramount and cannot be relegated by global intellectual property regimes.
"We're not willing to pay a price that undermines what was obtained in Doha," said a senior Brazilian official.
Jamie Love, director of the Washington-based Consumer Project for Technology, told UPI "there is no ethical basis to link these policies to any particular disease."
Deily said WTO members should not be "diverted away from helping poor countries and toward non-epidemic "lifestyle" health issues."
But Celine Charveriat of the international humanitarian group Oxfam, told UPI attempts by countries such as the United States to re-word the declaration are showing "bad faith," and singled out efforts by Washington to limit the scope of coverage.
"How can anti-cancer drugs be lifestyle issues," she said.
The Mexican chairman of the stalled talks, Eduardo Perez Motta, is slated to hold confidential talks with small groups of WTO countries in the hope of coming up with a new draft in time for the next session of the agency's ruling general council on Dec. 10, senior diplomats said.
Motta told delegates Friday he was confident "we will be able to complete our mandate in time."