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Sachs backs Indian stand on WTO pharma issue

P.T. Jyothi Datta

"The US virtually stood alone in blocking the broader interpretation. The Indian Government in negotiating on this issue held out for the broader interpretation and I think that they did a good job."

NEW DELHI, Jan. 9

IN the great WTO divide on making generic drugs available to low-income countries, the "eternal India optimist" and economist, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, on Thursday stood up to be counted with those espousing the generics' cause.

Speaking exclusively to Business Line, the defender of free-market economy, Prof Sachs, endorsed the approach of the Indian Government at the recent WTO meeting that broke down due to a stalemate with the US.

"The basic principle is that public health in the low-income countries should be ahead of the Intellectual Property Right (IPR) guarantees to the patent-holders," he said. There is no trade policy limiting Indian generic companies producing for the Indian market. The concern is about poor countries that do not have domestic production capacity and whether they can access generic drugs from countries such as India.

While everyone agrees in principle that a poor country, without manufacturing facilities should have the right to buy certain drugs from generic producers, the debate is on whether to include low-income countries under this principle. Also, should the scope of the principle be broadened from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria drugs to drugs for other illnesses too, he pointed out.

"I support a broader interpretation which says lower income countries should be able to gain access to generic drugs under the trade rules for a wide range of essential purposes not just the mentioned diseases. Under that broader interpretation, there is also the commercial role for Indian companies to sell abroad, which I support," he said. "The US virtually stood alone in blocking the broader interpretation. The Indian Government in negotiating on this issue held out for the broader interpretation and I think that they did a good job," he said.

Responding to whether his opinion put him on a confrontationist path with US drug majors, he clarified: "I support IPR in high-income markets. They need to make profits on their research and developments and so we should have strong patent protection in the US, Europe or Canada or other high-income markets. However, they should not and cannot expect to make profits in low-income countries where people are dying for lack of access to drugs. These companies really make their money in the high-income market and they should not stand in the way of poor people gaining access to drugs in the low-income countries."

Meanwhile, in India, to resolve the paradox of domestic companies being active in the global anti-AIDS market even while local HIV-infected were unable to afford anti-AIDS drugs, he suggested: "The Government should access the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria, use these funds to procure low-cost drugs from local generic companies. And this could be distributed to the infected patients through the public system," he added.

Stressing the urgency to act on HIV/AIDS, he said: "Foreign investors will be relieved to see India making major commitments in health and education. They know it's not just the infrastructure in terms of ports and roads that matter. It is also the health and quality of labour. Increased Government spending on healthcare and the quality of human potential would in fact be very re-assuring to investors."

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