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U.S. Close to Agreeing to Help Poor Countries Buy Medicines

By Elizabeth Becker

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

The United States said on Wednesday that it was close to accepting an agreement, which it had rejected last December, to help poor nations buy generic medicines through exemptions from trade rules.

The reversal by Washington -- meant to improve the access of millions of people in those countries to expensive patented medicines for AIDS, malaria and other diseases -- would enhance the Bush administration’s international standing and could prevent the collapse of global trade talks to be held in Mexico next month.

After weeks of intensive negotiations, the United States won assurances that countries would not take advantage of the arrangement to increase exports of generic drugs, diplomats involved in the discussions said. They said an agreement could come as soon as Thursday.

These global public health decisions are being made by the World Trade Organization because it protects intellectual property rights, including the copyrights of pharmaceutical companies.

For years, poor countries have used moral and political arguments, saying concerns about copyright protection paled in comparison with the need of millions of poor people for advanced medicines that could save their lives.

Deputy Trade Representative Peter Allgeier said Wednesday in a telephone conference call from Geneva that he hoped to reach an agreement before the formal meeting of the WTO began in Cancun, Mexico.

“It is possible,” Allgeier said. “We are still working very intensively on that.”

Allgeier refused to discuss details. “It is so sensitive,” he said.

But Faizel Ismail, the permanent representative of South Africa to the WTO, who was part of the private negotiations, said the United States accepted the deal because of new assurances that it will not be abused by the countries in need of generic drugs to fight diseases like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

“We were willing to reach out to the American pharmaceutical industry and find a way of including them in the consensus without sacrificing the substance of the agreement,” Ismail said in a telephone interview from Geneva, Switzerland.

Developing nations had pinned their hopes on such an agreement. The European Union and Switzerland, the other big producers of medicines, signed off on a deal last December to allow poor nations to buy generic medicines.

But the United States, with the strong approval of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, blocked the deal by exercising the veto that every member nation possesses at the WTO.

That move upended the timetable for the current round of trade negotiations that is dedicated to helping developing nations, and put the United States in the embarrassing position of being the lone nation opposing a solution to make vital drugs affordable for the poorest people on earth.