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Ministers reach agreement on increasing access to cheaper drugs

Developing countries could now find it easier to import affordable generic drugs, after ministers from 25 countries reached a consensus to finalise agreements on access to medicines for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

During an informal meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Sydney this week, the trade ministers managed to reach a consensus on the key issues of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement and how the WTO would allow equitable access to medicines in the developing world without contravening property rights, news reports said on Friday.

"We are going to send a very strong instruction back to [WTO headquarters in] Geneva to conduct the fine-tuning process that needs to be undertaken to resolve this issue and make...some quite influential and important decisions by the deadline at the end of this year," Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile was quoted as saying.

Trade ministers agreed at the WTO ministerial conference in Doha last year that poorer countries facing serious health threats should be allowed to avoid international drug patents by buying generic copies from manufacturers in other countries.

But they left the details to be completed by the end of 2002. In the 12 months since Doha, however, "no change has been achieved as rich countries, led by the US [United States] are fighting to maintain the status quo," Oxfam said in a statement.

Oxfam spokesperson Michael Bailey, from the Make Trade Fair campaign team, said: "Thanks to worldwide public concern and the commitment of developing country governments, we can get a solution to the problem, but it’s not in the bag. The big drug companies don't want to lose money from their patented products and are lobbying hard to limit any change to the rules. But this would render the 'solution' virtually worthless."

Meanwhile UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the trade ministers to "propose, without delay, a long-term solution" to increase developing countries' access to affordable medicines and vaccines for deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

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