MEPs back poorer country access to cheaper drugs

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STRASBOURG, France, Oct 22 (Reuters) A committee of European Union lawmakers endorsed an international agreement today aimed at giving poorer countries access to cheaper medicines to treat diseases like AIDS and malaria.

The so-called TRIPS agreement allows developing countries to make or buy copycat versions of patented drugs, but few have so far made use of the protocol which is strongly opposed by pharmaceutical firms.

The agreement, drawn up by the World Trade Organisation, needs to be ratified by members, including the European Union's member states and parliament.

The European Parliament's trade committee voted 26 in favour of the agreement, with none against and 3 abstentions.

The committee vote had been delayed three times as parliament pushed for a stronger commitment from EU states to make full use of TRIPS, or Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

Lawmakers say the mechanism is too complicated and time consuming, and some poorer countries fear retaliation from richer countries that are home to the pharmaceutical companies.

EU president Portugal agreed to give a written commitment to make use of TRIPs and win over reluctant lawmakers.

''There will be other opportunities to come back to this and strengthen our position even further,'' said Gianluca Susta, a liberal Italian lawmaker.

Full parliament, which has joint say with EU states on adoption of the agreement, is expected to endorse it on Wednesday.

Portugal said EU states recognised the opportunity to provide essential medicines at affordable prices.

''We look favourably upon initiatives encouraging the transfer of technology, research, capacity strengthening, regional supply systems... and will work with member states towards that end,'' the presidency statement said.

The presidency said that even if the TRIPS agreement is not the complete solution, ''we believe that the positive acceptance of the protocol represents an important step.'' ''We will continue to assist developing countries in fighting diseases such as HIV AIDS, including supporting their potential to develop a generic industry of their own,'' EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson told the committee.

The agreement will come into force as soon as two thirds of WTO members, or 100 countries, have formally accepted the measure.

By late September only 11 countries had endorsed the step and lawmakers said the WTO is expected to extend this deadline.

Reuters AK VP0046

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