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Deadlock Over Drug Patents

The European Union proposed Thursday calling in the World Health Organization to rescue a deal - blocked last month by the United States - on improving access to lifesaving drugs for poor countries.

Blaming a "lack of trust" between Washington and developing countries for the failure of talks last month at the World Trade Organization, EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said involving the WHO could restore good faith.

"When there's too much mistrust in the game then you have to call on a third party, and the WHO is a trusted party," he told reporters.

The impasse over access to medicines - which was supposed to be settled last year - could seriously jeopardize the new round of global trade liberalization talks launched in November 2001.

Despite a series of tight deadlines early this year, developing countries are unlikely to agree on any other issues until the drug problem has been settled.

A draft agreement worked out last month at the WTO in Geneva would have allowed some developing countries to ignore patents and import cheap copies of drugs to treat a variety of diseases, including HIV/AIDS and malaria.

But the United States wanted to limit its scope only to epidemics of infectious diseases so that developing countries could not use it to gain cheap drugs for other conditions like asthma, diabetes or migraine headaches.

Developing countries refused, arguing any list would be too restrictive and inflexible.

The EU's new proposal would start with a broad list of infectious diseases, but allow WTO members facing "any other public serious public health problems" to ask the WHO, a U.N. agency, for guidance on whether their situation was covered as well.

"We are convinced that we will be able to break the deadlock and rapidly achieve a final agreement," Lamy said.

A U.S. trade official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington is open to considering new ideas, but would wait to see how developing countries react to the EU proposal.

Brazil and India, two developing countries that are also major exporter of generic drugs, and Kenya, which speaks for the African Group, also had no immediate reaction.

After the talks broke down Dec. 20, Washington pledged to continue to work for a WTO solution while also announcing its own initiative: a pledge not to challenge any country that breaks WTO rules to export drugs to a country in need until a resolution is found.

The interim U.S. solution would cover infectious diseases including HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, ebola, African trypanosomiasis, cholera, dengue, typhoid and typhus fevers.

"We urge others to join us in this moratorium to help poor countries get access to emergency lifesaving drugs," U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said last month.

But Lamy said the 15-nation EU would not sign on because the U.S. solution was temporary and unilateral.

"It doesn't guarantee the necessary stability and legal certainty," he said. "We want to have a multilateral contract.

By Paul Geitner

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