Trade ministers are negotiating a deal to give developing countries the right to import generic copies of patented drugs.
Meeting in Australia, 25 members of the World Trade Organization - including Switzerland - said they hoped a deal could be struck by December 31.
Switzerland was represented by the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, at the informal meeting, which is part of an ongoing attempt by WTO members to push ahead with a new trade liberalisation package launched in Doha last year.
Responding to reports of a possible deal on the issue of access to and import of generic drugs within the developing world, Couchepin said Switzerland was ready to "help those populations which are in need, all the while guaranteeing the respect of intellectual property".
Right to import
The new accord would give the world's poorest countries - which lack the infrastructure to manufacture generic drugs for themselves - the right to import copies of certain patented medicines from other developing countries which already have their own pharmaceutical industries.
The latest ministerial talks come amid an ongoing and frequently acrimonious debate between countries struggling to cope with life-threatening diseases and nations with major pharmaceutical industries such as Switzerland and the United States.
François Meienberg, of the Swiss non-governmental organisation, the Berne Declaration, said he was disappointed that the talks had focused on allowing the importation of generic drugs to fight just three diseases: Aids, malaria and tuberculosis.
"The stance of Switzerland and the United States has prevailed," Meienberg told swissinfo.
"This will come as a blow to the developing world, which has been looking for a much wider accord."
But Bernard Hirschel, head of the HIV/Aids unit at Geneva University Hospital, says he welcomes the possibility of a deal to open up the generics market to countries which cannot afford to import drugs from the developed world.
"Of course I do welcome this because I think it is a recognition of something that is in any case inevitable and which is happening already," Hirschel told swissinfo.
Accord limits exportation
Hirschel says an existing global accord - which allows developing countries to produce generic drugs during times of urgent need - severely limits the importation of such medicine to other countries.
"The problem is that many of the poorest countries do not have a manufacturing capacity at all, so it does not help that they theoretically have the possibility [to produce generic drugs]," he says.
"They need to be able to import cheap copies from other countries such as India, where there are a lot of capable pharmaceutical companies," Hirschel adds.
Under the terms of existing WTO regulations, developing countries have the right only until 2005 to import generic drugs from a limited number of manufacturers.
Consequences for drug firms
Horst Kramer, spokesman for Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Roche, said his company would also welcome a deal to allow developing countries to import generics. But he warned of the consequences if such cheap drugs were to find their way on to the European or North American market.
"We are not concerned about the possibility of improving access to drugs," Kramer said.
But the appearance of generic drugs on the company's profit-driven markets, Kramer continued, "is more than just a fear, because we have already seen this happening".
"It takes huge investment to develop a new drug... so if we want to carry on doing research, we have to have a chance to recover these investments. It is therefore of utmost importance that the importation [of generics] to our traditional markets is avoided."
Kramer adds that Roche would expect safeguards to be put in place "as a kind of precondition" to any deal allowing the export and import of generics within the developing world.
Criticism of pharmaceuticals
The global pharmaceutical industry faces regular criticism that it is seeking to put profits before the demands of the millions of people who live in the developing world and who cannot afford to pay for patented drugs.
On Friday, the non-governmental organisation, Doctors Without Borders, accused Roche of reneging on promises to reduce the price of one of its antiretroviral Aids drugs in the developing world - a charge the company denies.
"This criticism reflects only half the picture," said Kramer, "and completely ignores other Roche drugs where we have reduced prices to a level where we are even undercutting generic producers."
"So we disagree with the statement that we have not lived up to our promises - we have."
Despite the latest criticism, Daniel Berman, a member of the Swiss branch of Doctors Without Borders, admits that the developing world needs both the global pharmaceutical giants and the companies which produce generic copies of patented drugs.
"We think that both generic companies and the multinational companies like Roche are both critically important," Berman says.
"We cannot solve the problem, for example, of access to Aids medicines with generics exclusively or only with the multinationals. We desperately need both."
swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh
Generic in brief
Twenty-five ministers, including the Swiss economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, have been holding informal trade talks in Australia.
Ministers have set themselves a December 31 target of improving the developing world's access to generic drugs.
Current World Trade Organization regulations mean developing countries can only import generic drugs from a limited number of sources.
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