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WASHINGTON: Terrorism is not the only major concern in today’s world, at least not for the poor. They also have other concerns, such as access to cheap medicines to fight epidemics like HIV/AIDS.

So while the rest of the world is busy discussing a possible US military offensive against Iraq, Africa’s poorest nations are busy battling the rich in the corridors of the World Trade Center in Geneva. They want cheap drugs simply because they say they do not have the money to buy expensive ones. The rich, led by the United States, sympathize but say that providing cheap medicines to the poor would undermine the drug industry and hamper future research.

The dispute led to the suspension of the rich-poor dialogue on Friday. At issue is how to draw up a set of agreed rules that would allow countries without a domestic pharmaceutical production capability to resort to compulsory licensing in cases of epidemics considered a national emergency or extreme urgency.

In turn this system, if agreed, would allow the affected poor country to override drug patents in force, and import generic copies manufactured in other developing countries to meet its urgent public health needs.

WTO members are bitterly divided, however, over the scope of epidemics and pharmaceutical products and medical kits that would be covered.

Which countries would be entitled to benefit from the regime is another contentious issue.

The United States, Switzerland and Japan, strongly supported by their pharmaceutical industries, favour limiting the scope of epidemics to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and any other serious epidemic.

The European Union, contrary to the stance of its pharmaceutical industry, which favours a position similar to that of the United States, has indicated it can be flexible on the epidemics that would be allowed.

But diplomats point out that the EU is equally tough on poor nations on many of the outstanding legal issues.

Rich countries are concerned unless there is clarity that only poor developing countries would be beneficiaries, there is a risk the whole mechanism might be used to undermine the global patent system which underpins the incentive system to research and develop new varieties of drugs to combat illnesses.

Alan Holmer, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, has noted: “Patents allow companies to invest the $800 million it takes, on average, to discover and bring to patients just one new medicine — with seven out of 10 that reach the market, failing to recoup average R&D costs.”

Efforts to weaken patents “would constrain progress in curing disease,” Holmer insists.

The United States wants all industrialized countries and high-income developing countries, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Israel, and countries in transition, such as the Czech Republic, to declare they will not use the system to import cheap pharmaceutical copies.

Most poor nations support the move to exempt countries like Singapore or Israel but say that developing nations should also be allowed to benefit from this concession. “They should not exclude any developing country,” said an Asian ambassador.

Some WTO ambassadors and industry executives reckon that the stance of Brazil and India to widen the scope of coverage is also partly to blame for the deadlock.

Dr Harvey Bale, secretary-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association says that Brazil and India are “trying to stretch the Doha declaration to be able to do any copy they want on any drug without any recourse to any review”.

Bale said the 24,000 generic pharmaceutical companies in India and the state-owned ministry of health companies in Brazil “need to copy to survive”.

Both India and Brazil have repeatedly championed the right to public health as paramount, and not controlled by global intellectual property regimes.