Suddenly, in the face of a possible global pandemic of bird flu, the World Bank is developing signs of cold feet. It is choosing to distance itself from the role it has carved out over decades as an advocate of policies to ''help'' developing countries.
The bird flu test that revealed the Bank in this new light is the position it has taken regarding Tamiflu, the only known drug capable of protecting people from the deadly H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus.
The Bank has decided that it is not in keeping with its mission to get involved in the emerging global debate on the Tamilfu patent held by the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche and that stands to be broken under the 'compulsory licencing' rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
When pressed on the Bank's position on compulsory licencing and the hope it holds out to protect people in the developing world, a senior Bank official revealed this week that the Washington-based entity is not in the business of ''advocating'' or ''taking positions'' on issues under ''negotiation''.
''We do not take positions and advocate what should be happening in any of the trade negotiations,'' Homi Kharas, the Bank's chief economist for the East Asia and Pacific region said Thursday, during a teleconference between Bank officials and journalists in four cities, Washington, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Hanoi.
''When there are concrete proposals on the table, we are asked how they might affect our member countries, the developing countries, and then we offer (our) analysis,'' he added. ''We will be doing the same kind of analysis with compulsory licencing as well.''
The debate over compulsory licencing has heated up after it became evident that Roche was unable to meet the international demand for Tamiflu.
Joining the fray and calling on Roche to give up its right to the patent to save lives are ranking officials from the United Nations and a member of the U.S. Senate, Chuck Schumer.
By late October, the Swiss company had caved in and agreed to give four manufacturers of generic drugs the licence to produce Tamiflu.
Under compulsory licencing, countries have a right to break the patent of a brand-name drug if it is an available remedy to save lives from public health emergencies. For years, developed countries like the United States, Canada and Australia have resorted to this measure when faced by public health crises, according to a U.N. study.
Yet, developing countries have been prevented from pursuing such measures, even after a breakthrough at the WTO ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar, in November 2001.
Pressure by the developed world to protect the profit margins of the pharmaceutical giants has been the main reason in denying the developing world an opportunity to make the commitments at the WTO meeting in Doha a reality. It was agreed by trade negotiators at that gathering that developing nations, under the special provisions of the Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), can either produce or buy cheaper generic drugs to deal with pandemics, such as HIV/AIDS.
This week's revelation by a senior economist at the Bank comes at a time when it, together with other financial institutions like the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (AsDB), have expressed worry about the dismal picture that lies ahead if bird flu triggers a pandemic.
Yet, when it comes to the obvious life-saving solution, the Bank is trying to present itself as a powerless and passive entity, preferring to observe events from the sidelines of global policy debates.
Such a position, however, is far from the case when it comes to strengthening opportunities for multinational companies to profit through the onward march of the global free-trade agenda.
A typical example of such advocacy is the paper prepared by Bank officials to pressure developing countries to embrace the neo-liberal trade policies at the forthcoming WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong.
''Openness to trade has been a central element of successful growth strategies: in all countries that have sustained growth, the share of trade in GDP (gross domestic product) has increased and trade barriers have reduced,'' argued this paper, prepared in August by the Bank, 'Trade Progress Report: Doha Development Agenda and Aid for Trade'.
Little wonder why critics of the Bank are surprised at the excuse offered by it in its attempt side-step the issue of compulsory licencing. '' The World Bank has been producing advocacy documents and pushing its stance on public policy issues for decades. It is no secret,'' Shalmali Guttal, senior researcher at the Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based think tank, told IPS.
She argued that the Bank ''should not remain non-committal'' about the debate over Tamiflu and compulsory licencing . ''Even if past health crises did not jog the Bank's sense of ethics, at least the impending threats of pandemics from viruses such as bird flu, should be enough to catalyse it to immediately call for a halt to TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) and patent regimes.''
Asia Russell, director of international policy at the U.S.-based advocacy group, Health GAP (Global Access Project), argues along the same lines. ''The World Bank should advocate, as part of its efforts to combat poverty, for countries to use their WTO legal rights to issue compulsory licences and take other measures to ensure access to medicines for all,'' she said in an e-mail interview.
So far, 62 people have died out of 121 human cases of bird flu in four South-east Asian countries, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. But public health authorities fear that the virus could mutate to one easily transmitted among humans, triggering a global pandemic that could kill millions.
With a vaccine to prevent this pandemic years away, hope lies in Tamiflu, for the human immune system lacks the strength to fight infections caused by the H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus.
Yet, the global institution that claims to ''help'' the developing world has, quite contrary to its usual character, chosen not to throw its weight behind.
The Bank's convenient silence over compulsory licencing of Tamiflu reveals where its loyalties lie-- with the profits of a pharmaceutical giant rather than vulnerable populations in the developing countries across this region.
''I suppose it will remain non-committal until it is pushed in one direction or the other way by the U.S., or its silence becomes untenable,'' said Guttal.
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