Following an impassioned appeal from Africa, the World Trade Organization on Saturday sealed a deal to allow poor countries to import cheap copies of patented drugs for killer diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
"All people of good will and good conscience will be very happy today with the decision that the WTO members have made," said Kenyan Ambassador Amina Chawahir Mohamed. "It's especially good news for the people of Africa who desperately need access to affordable medicine."
The United States has been trying to protect the interests of drug companies, which feared they could lose control of patent rights. U.S. concessions this week broke an eight-month deadlock on the issue.
The final breakthrough followed a meeting Friday during which representatives of many African countries pleaded with other diplomats to stop trying to win last-minute advantages for their own nations.
In a joint statement, they noted nearly 2.2 million Africans have died from AIDS and other killer diseases since the issue became deadlocked on Dec. 16.
"For us, the request by the African countries was a decisive factor. All of us couldn't fail to be touched by that," said Brazilian Ambassador Luis Felipe de Seixas Carrea.
The WTO's supreme General Council reconvened Saturday morning and gave formal approval to an agreement reached by a lower body late Thursday, before it ran into political wrangling.
"This is a historic agreement for the WTO," said Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi. "The final piece of the jigsaw has fallen into place, allowing poorer countries to make full use of the flexibilities in the WTO's intellectual property rules in order to deal with the diseases that ravage their people."
But groups campaigning to give poor people better access to lifesaving drugs criticized the agreement.
"Today's deal was designed to offer comfort to the U.S. and the Western pharmaceutical industry," said Ellen 't Hoen of the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders. "Unfortunately it offers little comfort for poor patients. Global patent rules will continue to drive up the price of medicines."
Diplomats in the 146-nation body spent six straight days trying to reach a compromise.
The representatives had nearly reached a deal by 1 a.m. Friday after a marathon session but it fell through minutes later. Negotiators said the deal had stumbled over demands by some countries to make statements before formal approval. Those statements can be used to make "reservations," or spell out limits countries will place on their adherence to the accord.
Some developing countries said they would only accept the pact on the understanding that measures to prevent smuggling would not add to the price of the drugs or make it more difficult for needy countries to get them.
The countries also noted that the agreement is supposed to be a short-term fix for a few years. They said they wanted to see work begin quickly to include the deal in the WTO's treaty on intellectual property rights.
Under WTO rules, countries facing public health crises have the right to override patents on vital drugs and order copies from cheaper, generic suppliers. However, until now they could only order from domestic producers - a useless loophole for the huge majority of developing countries that have no domestic pharmaceutical industry.
U.S. pharmaceutical research companies were concerned that a deal allowing countries to import generic drugs would be abused by generics manufacturers and could also lead to drugs being smuggled back into rich countries.
To satisfy those concerns, the document was accompanied by the new statement setting out conditions for using the measure.
The statement says rules allowing countries to override patents "should be used in good faith to protect public health ... not be an instrument to pursue industrial or commercial policy objectives."
It calls for special measures to prevent drugs being smuggled back to rich country markets, including special packaging or different colored tablets. Developed countries would agree not to make use of the provision.