The charge that globalization puts profits before people is almost entirely nonsense: The rules set up to facilitate the global movement of capital and goods offer the best hope of a job and an escape from poverty for millions of people. But one new pillar of the international system -- the intellectual-property regime overseen by the World Trade Organization -- does potentially favor companies at the expense of the neediest. On Wednesday the Bush administration signaled it understands this danger. It needs to come out and say so much more forcefully.
The potential for abuse comes in the area of drug patents. These always involve a trade-off: The patents create a useful incentive for firms to come up with new drugs, but they also restrict the spread of existing drugs to people who need them. Rich countries grant pharmaceutical firms 20-year patents, reckoning that most of their citizens will be able to afford the drugs they need even if long patents mean high prices. For poor countries, however, the logical trade-off is different. Their citizens are dying for want of drugs that exist but are unaffordable. Creating generous incentives for the invention of new and equally unaffordable drugs is not exactly a priority.
In 1995 the industrialized countries nonetheless persuaded the developing world to sign on to an intellectual-property deal that entrenches 20-year patents everywhere; it will be phased in by 2006. Fortunately, they conceded a loophole: If a country faces a national emergency, it has great leeway to license a drug from a patent holder and make cheap generic copies. Given that the developing world is in a state of permanent medical emergency -- because of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, to name just three killers -- this loophole ought to allow extensive manufacture of generics. But the pharmaceutical industry takes a different view. In a case that gets under way next month, it is suing the South African government for its policy of copying AIDS drugs.
Until the end of 1999, the Clinton administration sided with the industry in its maximalist view of intellectual-property rights. Then it changed sides, realizing presumably that forcing rich countries' conception of patents undiluted on the poor world is as crazy as telling African firms to pay the U.S. minimum wage. Now the new team at the office of the U.S. trade representative has let it be known -- in an off-the-record, coy kind of way -- that it means to stick to the second and wiser Clinton policy. If this really is the intention, Robert Zoellick, the head of the office, ought to say so clearly.
Until he does, there is reason to be worried. The pharmaceutical lobby gives millions in campaign donations; it is constantly pushing the U.S. trade office to file cases against developing countries at the World Trade Organization. The administration needs to take the opposite course: It should lead an international effort to clarify poor countries' right to fight emergencies with generic drugs, and it should declare its sympathy for the South African government in the pending case. The fragile support for globalization depends on showing that profits are not actually being promoted at the expense of people. That means corporate lobbies cannot be allowed to dictate health policy to the developing world, where 30,000 people die each day from treatable and preventable infectious diseases.
-- Washington Post
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