In a breathtaking-and-giving victory for HIVers, poor nations got the green light to access affordable generic drugs last November at the World Trade Organization's biennial meeting. After arduous all-nighters of debate, a declaration was passed stating that member states not be blocked -- by the threat of Big Pharma lawsuits, say, or tough-guy U.S. sanctions -- from taking "emergency measures" to protect public health. Still, this paper promise granting compulsory licensing of meds is not legally binding and may be challenged by WTO countries with big drug industries.
Convened in Doha -- capital city of the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar -- the power confab successfully dodged the thousands of antiglobalization activists who famously aborted the 1999 Seattle meeting. However, another band of crusty, hairy antiglobals proved harder to evade. Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's thugs, threatened blood in the sand if the infidels invaded. "Everyone was concerned. 'Is there going to be an attack? A rocket? A bomb?'" Said Jamie Love, director of Consumer Project on Technology. "I even tried to get life insurance." But with Al Jareeza, Al Qaeda's only international media outlet, which is based in Qatar, local leaders had leverage. A bargain was struck: Let the meeting proceed, and Al Jareeza will continue to televise hardline Islamic propaganda.
Zimbabwe introduced the original document, which pitted rich nations against poor, and was joined by some 80 developing nations. The U.S., European Union, Switzerland and Japan stood opposed. Repping for the industry, lobbyist Harvey Bale told The Washington Times that weaker patent protection will "kill incentives for research" into AIDS and other diseases.
With other contentious issues on the agenda and desperate for a success, the industrialized nations capitulated with surprising ease. "Big Pharma was a sacrificial lamb," Love said. "The Americans didn't want a hot potato." The failure to win a declaration would have battered the WTO's status as the top global trade entity.
Still looming is the $64,000 question: Can generic drug makers such as those in Brazil and India export their goodies to poor peers? An answer will be hashed out by the end of 2002. But Jamie Love left Qatar a happy man -- not just because the two years of sweat and muscle he'd poured into the drug access campaign had paid off, but because he was still alive.