Green Light to Put Public Health First At WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha

A Joint Press Statement issued from Doha, Qatar, WTO Ministerial by MSF, OXFAM, Third World Network, Consumer Project on Technology, Consumers International, Health Action International and The Network

Doha, Qatar, November 14, 2001 — The one hundred and forty two countries meeting at the 4th WTO ministerial conference in Doha clearly affirmed that governments are free to take all necessary measures to protect public health. Now, if drug companies price drugs beyond the reach of people who need them, governments can override patents without the threat of retribution.

"Countries can ensure access to medicines without fear of being dragged into a legal battle," said Ellen 't Hoen of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). "Now it is up to governments to use these powers to bring down the cost of medicines and increase access to life-saving treatments."

A declaration on TRIPS and public health adopted today clearly recognized the potentially lethal side-effects of the TRIPS agreement and gave teeth to the measures that countries can use to counteract them. These measures include the right to grant compulsory licenses (overriding patents) and the freedom to determine the grounds upon which such licenses are granted. The Doha declaration acknowledged that these options are not limited to emergency situations. However, if countries do declare an emergency, they can issue compulsory licenses without prior negotiation with the patent owner. It is countries themselves that determine what constitutes an emergency situation.

The declaration also leaves countries the freedom to decide on their own rules for implementing parallel imports. Parallel importation allows a country to shop around for the best price of a branded drug on the global market. In addition, least developed countries (LDCs) were given a 10 year extension to comply with TRIPS - this means that the deadline for compliance is now 2016 for LDCs, at the earliest.

"The huge profile given to the issue changes the political climate, building on the victories in the South Africa and Brazil cases," said Michael Bailey of Oxfam. "We would have liked to see stronger wording, but the declaration does have a clear political statement that public health concerns must override commercial interests."

The Doha declaration is a road map for using the flexibilities of the TRIPS Agreement to protect public health", said James Love of Consumer Project on Technology. "It sets the standards to measure any bilateral or regional trade agreement."

"Doha is a major advance in rebalancing the TRIPS Agreement. The next step is to ensure that next year's scheduled review of TRIPS takes a hard look at what kind of patenting is really suitable for developing countries", said Cecilia Oh of the Third World Network.

The biggest disappointment is that the meeting failed to resolve the issue of where countries with insufficient or no manufacturing capacity for pharmaceuticals will obtain drugs under a compulsory license. The developing countries asked the WTO to authorize the export of medicines under article 30 of the TRIPS (limited exceptions), but the WTO ministerial conference has deferred the issue to the TRIPS Council, which is instructed to find a solution before the end of 2002.