America was yesterday accused by France of blackmailing developing countries into giving up their right to produce cheap drugs for AIDS victims.
In a move that may strain tense relations between the two countries, the French president, Jacques Chirac, said there existed a real problem of favourable trade deals being dangled before poor nations in return for those countries halting production of life-saving generic drugs.
These cheap drugs compete with identical but more expensive patented varieties made by the world's largest pharmaceutical companies.
"Making certain countries drop these measures in the framework of bilateral trade negotiations would be tantamount to blackmail, since what is the point of starting treatment without any guarantee of having quality and affordable drugs in the long term?" Mr Chirac wrote in a statement that was read to the International AIDS conference in Bangkok yesterday.
Although the president did not name the Bush administration in his attack, French officials later explicitly named the U.S. as being at the heart of the problem.
Mireille Guigaz, France's global ambassador on AIDS, said: "It is a question between the United States and developing countries, and the way the U.S. wants to put pressure on developing countries who try to stand up for their own industries. We do not wish countries' hands [to be] tied by bilateral agreements."
The U.S. has been pursuing bilateral trade agreements expected to close the loophole allowed by the World Trade Organisation's agreement on drug patents last year. At Doha, it was agreed that poor countries in need of medicines could disregard the 20-year patents on new drugs owned by the multinational drug companies, most of which are based in the US.
The deal, completed at Cancun, lets poor countries buy cheap, generic copies of patented drugs from the makers, in India, Brazil and Thailand. AIDS drugs were hugely expensive before such firms made their copies and brought the prices down from $10,000 (#5,400) a patient a year to under $300 (#162).
According to the World Health Organisation, 6 million people in poor countries need antiretroviral treatment but only 440,000 are getting it.
On Monday, a report from Oxfam warned that bilateral agreements were set to do great damage to the fight against AIDS in Thailand, where the government has so far been able to administer generic versions of AIDS drugs made by its own government pharmaceutical organisation (GPO). Thailand has said it intends to export its copies to neighbouring countries.
But the U.S. launched negotiations on a free trade agreement with Thailand on June 30. Similar agreements, signed by the U.S. with Singapore, Chile and central American countries, contain stringent intellectual property provisions, according to Oxfam. If Thailand is forced down the same road, its government may not be able to license the GPO to make new, cheap AIDS drugs as the older ones lose their efficacy.
The agreements already signed extend patent protection beyond 20 years, Oxfam said, and limit a government's ability to allow its own generic companies to make copies of patented drugs and import generic versions. "Oxfam shares the concerns of Thai NGOs that a free trade agreement with the US, containing unnecessarily high intellectual property standards, will seriously undermine future access to affordable medicines in Thailand," the report says.
Xavier Darcos, the French minister for cooperation and development, said France wanted to see a global agreement on access to medicines and favoured any that allowed "the countries in most need to access drugs, ideally free, or else produce them."
Mr Chirac, in his statement, also called for the U.S. to put more money into the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculo
The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, said he thought that the U.S. contribution of $500m to the global fund should have been $1bn of the $15bn the Bush administration had pledged for AIDS projects.
Yesterday the UN said there would be 50 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa by 2010, of whom 18.4 million would have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Yet it was a crisis that had been ignored. A report from Unicef, the children's fund, revealed that from 2001 to 2003 the number of children worldwide orphaned by AIDS rose from 11.5 million to 15 million. Most of the AIDS orphans were in Africa, which has been hardest hit by the pandemic.
o Josi Manuel Barroso, the president-designate of the European commission, yesterday attacked American "arrogance" but insisted the EU had to keep good relations with the US. The former prime minister of Portugal, who backed the Iraq war, said he admired the nation but he hated "their arrogance, their unilateralism", But it was very much in Europe's interest "to try to have a constructive relationship."