July 12, 2007 / 8:44 AM / 12 years ago

EU pledges easier drug access for poorer nations

By Huw Jones

STRASBOURG, France, July 11 (Reuters) - The European Union will exclude medicine patent provisions from future trade deals with poorer countries to ease their access to cheaper drugs, the bloc’s executive Commission said on Wednesday.

The European Commission is responsible for negotiating trade agreements for the 27-nation EU.

It was responding to a call from the European Parliament which wants the bloc to do more to help poorer countries stop 12 million people from dying each year from tropical diseases.

Members of the European Parliament said a 1994 global trade agreement on intellectual property rights — known as TRIPS — restricts the development of affordable copycat treatments for poorer countries.

"The Commission can confirm that the European Community is committed not to including in the economic partnership agreements and in other future bilateral and regional agreements with poor developing countries any TRIPS plus provisions which could affect access to medicines," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told parliament.

Under TRIPS, or Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, a developing country can issue "compulsory licences" to make copycat versions of patented drugs.

TRIPS are negotiated by the World Trade Organisation and Thailand has already issued compulsory licences.

For countries with no drug industry to use compulsory licensing, a temporary waiver from the normal rules of patent law was agreed in 2003.

A hard-fought protocol seeks to make that waiver permanent, but it needs to be ratified by two thirds of WTO members, including the European Parliament, to become binding.

But deputies say the system is too cumbersome, sides with the concerns of big drug firms, and needs more flexibility. Drug makers have said they need strong patents as an incentive to invest in new drugs.

Politicians have threatened to refuse to ratify the protocol unless the EU does more to help poorer countries.

"When it comes to funding, it should be possible for them to get support to set up local production facilities," Italian liberal Gianluca Susta said.

Rehn said the EU was already doing a lot to help.

"Given the role played by the European Community in forging this permanent solution, it would be regrettable if the EC was not in a position to accept it in time," Rehn said.

"It constitutes an important practical step ... in helping to combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases," added Manuel Lobo Antunes on behalf of EU president Portugal.

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