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As host of an informal ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization, Japan should take the initiative in easing rules on pharmaceutical patents so developing countries can have better access to desperately needed drugs, according to Dr. Tatsuo Hayashi, president of Africa-Japan Forum.

“Japan’s position is similar to that of the United States and Switzerland, putting more importance on protecting patent rights of pharmaceutical makers,” said Hayasahi, who has worked as a volunteer doctor in the Third World. “I urge Japan to take a more humanitarian standpoint.”

Because negotiations at the WTO General Council failed to produce results earlier this week, the drug patent dispute is expected to be among the major issues discussed during the three-day meeting starting Friday in Tokyo.

“There may be a time when the opinion of Japan as a chair of the meeting will be decisive,” Hayashi said.

At issue is whether countries that cannot afford to buy patented drugs, or don’t have the ability to produce them on their own, should be allowed to import cheaper generic versions that are produced in developing nations. The diseases targeted include HIV, malaria and tuberculosis.

The U.S. is calling for strict restrictions on the trade in these copy drugs, charging that the proposal, if adopted, would remove incentives for drug makers to research and develop new cures.

According to the Foreign Ministry, more than 90 percent of the roughly 42 million HIV-positive people throughout the world are in developing countries, including 28 million in southern Africa.

The lack of necessary medicine has led to shortened life spans of people in the developing world compared with those of industrialized nations, said Hayashi, who worked in Ethiopia for three years in the 1980s.

Hayashi said he was shocked to see dozens of children being treated at a hospice for the terminally ill when he visited South Africa in the late 1990s as a member of Africa-Japan Forum, a nongovernmental organization founded in 1994 to support development of African countries and help them build ties with Japan.

“Children lived there with death in sight,” he said, suggesting many may have had a brighter future had proper medicines been available.

In a ministerial conference in Doha, Qatar, in November 2001, WTO members agreed to allow poor countries plagued by AIDS, malaria and other epidemics — but not able to afford patented drugs produced in industrialized nations — to produce cheaper versions of the drugs for domestic consumption.

But an agreement has been elusive on whether poorer nations that have no domestic pharmaceutical industry should be allowed to import such generic drugs.

Children would be able to live longer if poorer countries were allowed to import the generic drugs, Hayashi said.

Generic drugs for HIV produced in developing countries, for example, cost just 5 percent to 10 percent that of patented drugs made in industrialized nations, he said.

Last week, Japan proposed that rules on the export of generic drugs for 22 infectious diseases, including HIV, be eased first and those on drugs for other maladies be further discussed by the WTO council.

Mexican Ambassador to the WTO Eduardo Perez Motta, who chairs the drugs negotiating council, proposed allowing exports of generic drugs only in times of “national emergencies or other circumstances of extreme urgency.”

But Hayashi opposes both compromises, as neither would enable developing countries to import preventative drugs or store medicines for emergencies. “(Developing states) shouldn’t compromise,” he said.

Hayashi pointed out that industrialized nations began pushing for the protection of pharmaceutical patents again after the Doha agreement.

“We’re not saying patents should be ignored,” Hayashi said. “We’re asking for a better balance between protecting patents and public health.”

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