India enters the new year committed to effectively curbing its role as prime world exporter of cheap generic drugs, whose availability is seen as vital to helping the world's poorest sufferers.
The largely Western manufacturers of brand-name patented drugs want protection against copying. But those in the front line in the fight against death and disease in the Third World say the lack of generic versions of future drugs will deny the neediest access to the latest medicine.
India is at present the world's third-biggest producer and prime exporter of generic drugs, which are cheaper than drugs sold under patent.
It has hitherto not recognized international drug patents, thereby leaving its pharmaceutical industry with a half-million-strong workforce free to copy foreign products.
But as of January it will fall into line with WTO rules and so will generally not be able to provide cheap copies of future developments in the field of pharmaceuticals, or of drugs marketed since 1995 whose creators have applied for patents.
"This is going to make treatment dearer and there will be no more accessible generic drugs to treat the poorest with latest products," warned the medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF).
To protect manufacturers from counterfeiting or copying, WTO accords on intellectual property provide patents that last for 20 years.
These accords gave emerging countries up to the year 2000 to conform -- with certain exceptions for a few nations which received exemptions to Jan. 1.
Producers of generic drugs such as Brazil and Thailand have already fallen into line, but India, Morocco, Paraguay and Tunisia sought postponement.
More than 11 million people died of infectious diseasees including AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria last year, half of them in Africa, WHO figures show.
In 49 countries most affected by AIDS, only 4 percent of the 4.7 million in need of urgent treatment get such treatment, according to MSF.
Recognition of pharmaceutical patents in India from Jan. 1 on is viewed by some Indian generic drug manufacturers as a boost to innovation. But others see themselves as being penalized.
The reform is backed by the country's leading company Ranbaxy, but decried by the second, Cipla, whose boss Yussuf Hamied told reporters: "It puts India at a very big disadvantage."
As of Jan. 1 international patenting regulations will apply, with all new drugs appearing on the market protected for 20 years. Only those marketed before 1995 can continue to be copied.
Generic versions of drugs marketed since then whose creators have applied for patents will be barred.
India's Cipla will not withdraw any of its products since all hit the shelves before the middle of the last decade, Hamied explained.
This includes the company's anti-retroviral drug compound Triomune, sold at modest prices to AIDS sufferers in in 43 poor countries.
But he warned the application of patents would negatively affect Cipla's activities by 2008 or 2009.
"It will have an impact on newer products which we will not be in the position to introduce."
Pointing out that India invented hardly any new drug products, Hamied said his company could not compete with big foreign competitors.