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Brazil: Hopes Lift at WTO Drugs Talks

by Bayan RahmanFinancial Times
February 17th, 2003

A Brazilian proposal at the weekend has raised hopes of a breakthrough in the World Trade Organisation's deadlocked talks on poor countries' access to essential medicines.

Brazil unveiled its initiative, intended to meet US concerns on the issue, during a three-day informal meeting in Tokyo of trade and agriculture ministers.

But the meeting has also exposed deep differences over how far the Doha world trade round should seek to liberalise farm trade.

A proposal last week by Stuart Harbinson, chairman of the WTO agriculture negotiations, to eliminate export subsidies and cut tariffs by as much as 60 per cent was seen as too radical by the European Union and Japan but criticised as not going far enough by the US and other leading agricultural exporting nations.

The ministers nonetheless called Mr Harbinson's paper a "catalyst" for their talks. They have asked him to re-draft it before a March 31 WTO deadline for establishing the modalities, or parameters, of the planned agriculture negotiations.

Mr Harbinson defended his paper, saying WTO members had yet to hold serious negotiations on agriculture in Geneva. "The whole purpose of this [paper] is to spark a fresh debate," he said.

Brazil suggested that the World Health Organisation be asked to verify whether poor countries seeking compulsory licences for drugs had the domestic capacity to make them, thus aiming to narrow differences blocking an agreement on the supply of essential medicines.

The EU backed the suggestion. "It could help solve this uncertainty on what does a country without manufacturing capacity mean," said Pascal Lamy, EU trade commissioner. "It could contribute to solving this confidence gap which we still have."

All WTO members except the US said in December they would support a draft agreement designed to prevent the organisation's patent protection rules from stopping the supply of essential medicines to poor countries suffering serious public health problems.

The US pharmaceuticals industry influenced Washington's move out of concern that the draft agreement would enable other countries to legally flout patents on a wide range of its products.

Breaking the deadlock on medicines and achieving progress in the agriculture talks are crucial to the fate of the Doha round. Supachai Panitchpakdi, WTO director-general, warned ministers at the start of this weekend's meeting that the negotiations faced "imminent gridlock".

In addition to Mr Lamy and Franz Fischler, EU agriculture commissioner, ministers from the US and about 20 other countries participated in the meeting.

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