WTO summit goal: putting people ahead of profits

While many members of the international community are focused on the latest developments in Afghanistan, another region in the Middle East is host to an issue that could have an immense impact on much of the world.

At stake are perhaps thousands of lives that will no doubt be affected by a recent agreement reached at the World Trade Organization summit in Daha, Qatar. Although negotiations were tense, a resolution was reached between developing nations such as Brazil and India as well as industrialized ones such as the United States on the matter of easing restrictions on patented drugs. Unfortunately, it is unclear how successful implementation of this plan will be.

For many years, critics have alleged that wealthier nations have put profit above human life by opposing plans for developing nations to find alternatives to expensive drugs that the majority of their citizens cannot afford. Both Brazil and India, suffering from the social and economic burdens of millions of citizens infected with malaria and AIDS, have sought to import or make generic drugs that could be widely distributed in their countries. Yet they have consistently been stonewalled by the massive efforts of the pharmaceutical industry and the United States, both of which oppose their plans.

Thousands of lives could have been saved — or at the very least prolonged — in the process.

One has to wonder why an industry garnering about $300 billion a year is worried about the potential effects generic drugs would have on the market. On Nov. 8, CNN reported on its Web site that the “”provision of cut-price medicines in poorer countries will hardly put a dent on the … industry.”” Yet the pharmaceutical industry still fears that future research will be jeopardized by “”over-riding patents.”” It is clear that this immensely powerful industry is worried more about the potential loss of profits than the well-being of citizens of so-called “”third world”” countries.

Unfortunately, the United States has been one of the most effective and vocal opponents of the fight to suppress developing nations’ claims to easier access to life-saving drugs. In the past, the United States has consistently charged that Brazil and India’s desire for a waiver to a rule that “”guarantee[s] 20-year patents on medicines”” will threaten the pharmaceutical industry.

At the same time, however, the United States’ hypocrisy on this issue has been exposed. On Nov. 8 CNN noted in its Web site that the United States, after a series of anthrax scares following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., “”threatened to use generic versions of the patented drug”” Cipro because Cipro is so expensive. Although anthrax is a serious and potentially life-threatening illness, it is dwarfed by the horrific effects of being infected with malaria or AIDS — especially when many in a poor nation simply cannot afford potentially life-saving medical treatment. It is unethical for the United States to criticize other nations who are clearly acting in the best interests of their citizenry when it is unable to follow the same rules that it forces upon others.

Although the agreement reached by both sides in Qatar leaves many optimistic about the future of public health in developing nations, it is hoped that a quick and effective enforcement of the resolution will be enacted. Yet it may not be wise to be optimistic about the agreement just yet. While CNN reported on its Web site Tuesday that the “”deal is believed to give developing nations more flexibility in over-riding patent rules on public health grounds,”” delegates have not yet released the details of the plan and it is too early for any of them to know if it is completely feasible.

Further complicating matters is the apparent reluctance of industrialized nations to enforce the deal. Shockingly, the United States delegation has stated that “”the final text should be considered a political statement rather than a legally enforceable document.”” This is obviously distressing because it implies that not much will actually change. However, as noted before, it is simply too early to tell whether the plan will work effectively or not. It is hoped that this agreement will effectively set the stage for better relations between rich and poor nations and dispel the idea that wealthier nations care little for their poorer counterparts.

Today, the United States has a unique opportunity to demonstrate to the world that lives are more important than the profit margins of corporations.

It is our responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to life-saving drugs and it is morally irresponsible for us to ignore the millions of lives that depend on unrestricted access to effective medical treatments.

We have demonstrated our military prowess in the Middle East — let’s hope we can demonstrate our prudence and our compassion in the rest of the world.

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