WTO progresses on drug patent issue

Associated Press

DOHA, Qatar — Midway through the World Trade Organization’s five-day session, ministers got down to hard bargaining Sunday with some movement on at least one of their most divisive issues: ensuring access to medicines for poor countries.

They also paused to accept Taiwan’s membership, a day after approving rival China.

Countries with no drug industry are seeking an explicit assurance that they can override patents and grant a license to produce drugs in another country when public health is at stake.

The European Union and other countries were seeking to bridge the gap between the United States, Switzerland, Japan and Canada — worried about undermining their pharma-ceutical industries — and developing countries led by Brazil and India, who charge strict patent enforcement denies lifesaving drugs to poor countries.

Several compromise texts surfaced Sunday, but U.S. Deputy Trade Representative Peter Allgeier declined to comment on the "sensitive" negotiations.

China was moving fast meanwhile to formalize its membership.

Chinese foreign trade minister Shi Guangsheng said he would hand the signed ratification documents to WTO Director-General Mike Moore on Sunday night. China will become a full-fledged member on Dec. 11, he said.

Most countries take months to complete the ratification process.

Under a 1992 agreement, Taiwan could not join before China, which considers the island to be a breakaway province. For WTO purposes, Taiwan is classified as a "separate customs territory."

Shi said he hoped the two memberships would improve trade between the two but continued to insist that Taiwan is part of China.

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