Lifesaving Trade Policies


In 2002, doves pilloried the Bush administration for proposing to spend too much on ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and not enough on what Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs has dubbed “weapons of mass salvation” -- lifesaving vaccines, medicines and crops genetically enhanced to produce higher yields.

Yes, the $1.66 billion the Bush administration has earmarked for international development aid in fiscal year 2004 is a pittance compared with the $50 billion to $100 billion that a war against Iraq could cost. But the measure of altruism that foreign critics most often use to deride the United States -- that it spends just 0.1% of gross national product on “official development assistance,” ranking it last among the 22 most industrialized countries -- does not take into account the mammoth humanitarian contribution this nation’s science, medicine and biotechnology industries make to the world’s poor.

In fact, America’s ability to help the world will depend not only on the budget decisions that Congress begins making next week but also on how adeptly Bush officials manage to resolve trade disputes that are now preventing key medicines and biotechnologies from benefiting those who need them worldwide.


These trade disputes have been waged since November 2001 outside the media limelight at international summits in Doha, Qatar; Monterrey, Mexico; and Johannesburg, South Africa. The mid-level Bush officials involved may not receive much attention, but their decisions will be as important to the world’s sick and hungry as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld’s decisions will be to Saddam Hussein.

Two disputes will be especially heated in early 2003:

* Generic drugs. Two weeks ago, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick threw in the towel in Geneva after failing to broker a compromise between anti-American activists in Europe who wanted him to essentially nullify all patents protecting Western drugs and U.S. corporations that wanted each patent preserved.

In early 2003, Zoellick needs to find a compromise between the European extremists and the drug companies. He should refuse to let countries override lucrative patents on nonessential drugs such as Viagra (for erectile dysfunction) but should allow exemptions for lifesaving medications such as the protease inhibitors that can give a long lease on life to those with AIDS and HIV.

* Genetically modified crops. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman will have to work vigorously to quell world fears -- most of them irrational -- about biotechnologies. With that in mind, she should require better labeling of genetically altered food. But she should also press the European Union to reconsider its overly zealous four-year moratorium on the importation of genetically modified foods, a ban based mainly on panic promulgated by extremist environmental groups at the expense of the starving.

Of course, no amount of deft policymaking can turn the handful of change that the U.S. spends on foreign aid into a bounty. Still, Bush officials such as Zoellick and Veneman can accomplish much in 2003 by aggressively lobbying for policies that put the world’s sick and hungry ahead of fringe environmentalists and uncompromising corporations.