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Advocates join Nigerian organizations in call for greater involvement of public health experts, consumers, people living with HIV/AIDS in writing crucial intellectual property bill.

At the start of a meeting in Nigeria to draft final text for a new national intellectual property bill, health and consumer advocates warned that, without substantial change, the new bill will restrict Nigeria‚s ability to gain access to affordable generic versions of medicines.

The advocates noted with particular concern apparent support from the U.S. Department of Commerce and from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) for a draft bill that would weaken Nigeria’s rights to break patent monopolies on medicines in order to meet public health imperatives. These options, legal under WTO rules and reaffirmed by 142 countries at the Doha WTO Ministerial Meeting last year, have been met with resistance from U.S. pharmaceutical companies.

The U.S. Department of Commerce is sponsoring the meeting, pursuant to Nigeria’s obligation to comply with WTO rules on intellectual property. The final text will be sent to Nigerian Parliament to be signed into law. A legal analysis of the proposed legislation completed by the Consumer Project on Technology concluded that the bill would make access to generic drugs in Nigeria more difficult than is allowed under WTO rules.

The draft bill defies expert opinion that public health shouldn’t be trumped by patent rights, said Asia Russell of Health GAP. In November 2001, the WTO Doha Ministerial Meeting instructed countries to implement intellectual property protections in ways that promote access to medicines for all. Nigeria, currently faced with a massive AIDS crisis, should be permitted and encouraged to use every available mechanism to obtain cheap, quality medicines according to advocates. This bill will needlessly raise drug prices in Nigeria, deny people access to essential medicines, and drain an already depleted treasury, continued Russell.

The U.S. has a long history of pursuing the interests of the pharmaceutical industry behind closed doors, said Brook Baker of Health GAP. We suspect the Department of Commerce is pushing for tough intellectual property protection on essential inventions like medicines, under the guise of providing simple technical assistance. But the U.S. has an obligation to put public health and access to essential medicines first at the negotiating table.

The world has finally recognized that strict patent protection on medicines isn‚t always best for poor countries, said Allison Dinsmore of Health GAP. It appears the Department of Commerce is still advising African countries based on the flawed ideas of the past.

The meeting occurs as controversy rages over a closely related dispute at the WTO on rules for exporting generic medicines to countries without the means for local production. The current U.S. and EU proposals will prove too restrictive and burdensome for countries like Nigeria to use, according to advocates. All WTO countries must decide by the end of 2002 on a common solution to the export problem, according to a declaration on public health signed at the WTO meeting in Doha in 2001.

The U.S. made a commitment at the WTO to respect the right of countries to prioritize public health, said Russell. U.S. trade negotiators are undermining that commitment by fighting for a bad deal on medicines access at the WTO, and the Department of Commerce appears to be undermining that commitment in Nigeria as well. Millions in Nigeria are dying without access to medicines – 4 million are living with HIV infection alone

It’s time the U.S. stopped reneging on its promises.

For more information, see Health Gap’s web site