TRIPS and the WTO - killing millions for massive profits

In Africa millions of people are sick and dying from AIDS although drugs exist which could significantly improve their health and lengthen their lifespan. However, even though these drugs could be produced cheaply enough to fight against the epidemic, they are currently far too expensive for virtually any African to afford. The reason that they are denied any chance of lifesaving treatment is the lust for profits of the pharmaceutical multinationals, which own patents for the drugs.

The World Trade Organisation's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) was created to allow multinational corporations to demand that their 'ownership' of intellectual patents be respected in all countries. Among other things, it allows them to prevent third world countries from making cheap versions of the AIDS drugs which are currently the only hope of survival for tens of millions of Africans.

The cost of manufacturing patented drugs is a tiny fraction of their price. Before the TRIPS agreement, India, Brazil and several other countries developed industries capable of copying the formulas of drugs and mass producing cheap generic versions which could then be distributed all over the third world. These generic drugs often cost less than one-tenth the price of the patented drugs. However, the 4 enormous multinationals, which dominate the pharmaceutical industry, didn't like this.

Despite the fact that they already made fat profits, they argued that they needed to be protected against these generic manufacturers and that their high prices were needed to reward their innovations. They neglected to add that they in fact spend far less money on research than on marketing and only a tiny amount of money is spent on combating the serious diseases of the third world. The dirty work for the drug companies is done by the US government, which was responsible for the TRIPS clause of the WTO.

This clause grants them a global 20-year monopoly over the drugs, which they develop, and provides for trade sanctions against any country which doesn't protect this monopoly.

However, the TRIPS agreement did allow for some exceptions to this law of patents on drugs. In cases of national epidemics, governments can unilaterally take over the production of certain drugs and produce them locally at a price set by the government. This is known as 'compulsory licensing'.

Yet this small concession is too much for the multinationals. The US government has used aggressive tactics against any country that makes use of these licences, threatening them with sanctions and loss of trading privileges. India, Brazil and the Dominican Republic have already faced these threats.

In Africa, despite the fact that AIDS is clearly a rampant epidemic, the US government did everything it could to prevent the development of generic AIDS drugs. It was only a few months before the presidential election, after Al Gore had been embarrassed by protestors during his campaign, that Clinton reversed the US policy and promised not to 'retaliate' against African countries which attempted to make generic AIDS drugs. Now, with the elections over, and Bush at the helm it seems likely that this reversal won't last long.

TRIPS is concerned with all elements of intellectual property rights, life-saving drugs are only the most emotive and obviously unjust part of the agreement. The agreement essentially copper-fastens the monopoly of developed countries, especially the US, over all aspects of technology.Developing countries are forbidden from copying the products and processes of the developed world, ensuring that they will never be able to challenge their position at the bottom of the global economic order.

This private ownership of ideas and innovation is a detriment to all scientific advance. Innovation and new technologies are never the product of one mind or one company; rather they build on a multitude of minuscule advances achieved over many years of rational inquiry.

For one company to claim ownership of an idea, which is built upon the discoveries of countless scientists working over centuries, is preposterous. The corporations who own these ideas are thieves, stealing the product of centuries of thought from humanity and repackaging it to safeguard their massive profits. If property is theft, intellectual property is grand larceny.

It is no surprise that the WTO is the organisation responsible for TRIPS. The WTO is designed to promote and defend the rights of corporations on a global level. TRIPS is their attempt to appropriate for themselves all the achievements of human science, to be sold back to us at a profit. The aggressive support of the US government for the WTO and TRIPS is virtually enough to force every developing country to comply.

Sanctions or trade restrictions by the US would be enough to cripple most developing economies. If this causes the unnecessary deaths of millions of voiceless Africans, so be it. They are merely collateral damage on the road to the new world order.

Happily, this huge crime is not without its opponents. The wave of anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation protests against the WTO and other international financial institutions has shown that there is significant opposition to corporate and capitalist rule. Activists in the US suceeded in raising the issue of AIDS in Africa through a campaign of protests and demonstrations. The scale of the disaster in Africa is such that the US government was forced to back down when the reality of the situation was brought to public attention.

Still this is but a temporary setback to the march of the new world order. The multinationals will continue their advance; their project remains very much alive. The movements of opposition need to continue to grow and develop if they are to have any chance of stopping the inhumane system that is being constructed around us. For Africa, it could already be too late to stop the disaster.

Chekov Feeney

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This edition is No64 published in May 2001