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US and France clash over cheap Aids drugs

US and France clash over cheap Aids drugs

By Geoff Dyer in Bangkok, Guy de Jonquières in London and Robert Graham in Paris

Financial Times, 13 July 2004

The US and France clashed on Tuesday over allegations by President Jacques Chirac that Washington was seeking to use bilateral trade agreements to reduce developing countries’ access to cheap medicines for diseases such as HIV/Aids.

In a message to an international Aids conference in Bangkok, Mr Chirac accused the US of "blackmail" and of undermining a World Trade Organisation agreement last year that authorised poor nations to override patents when obtaining supplies of essential medicines.

"Making certain countries drop these measures in the framework of bilateral trade negotiations would be tantamount to blackmail," Mr Chirac said. He called for full implementation of the WTO accord.

Robert Zoellick, US trade representative, strongly denied the charges, saying Washington’s bilateral trade accords with countries in Central America and elsewhere explicitly respected the terms of the WTO agreement.

While the US was encouraging trade partners to strengthen protection of intellectual property rights, he said its efforts had led to higher foreign investment and increased flows of pharmaceuticals products to their markets.

"I guess my response to France would be that I wish they would quit trying to undermine the rest of the world economy with agricultural exports and to divert attention with issues like this," Mr Zoellick said in a telephone interview.

He urged France to support efforts to open international markets and accused its government of taking "a rather parochial view" by favouring "national champion" policies towards its pharmaceutical industry.

The US is currently negotiating a trade agreement with Thailand and has signed deals with countries including Jordan, Chile, Morocco, Bahrain, Singapore, Australia and a group of Central American nations.

Mr Chirac’s message was a robust restatement of French policy following his attempts to make Aids a priority at last year’s G8 summit in Evian, which he hosted.

The French mistrust the conditions attached to US President George W. Bush’s $15bn programme to fight Aids in Africa and the Caribbean, and have sought every opportunity to demonstrate that it is not as generous as the US suggests.