India and Brazil launched a trade dispute against the European Union and the Netherlands on Wednesday over the seizure of generic medicines in transit.
The move at the World Trade Organization ratchets up the pressure in a row pitting the intellectual property rights of pharmaceuticals corporations against access to affordable medicine for people in poor countries.
Reuters reported in October last year that frustration over seizures of generics drugs by European customs officials was prompting India and Brazil to mount a legal challenge at the WTO.
But EU officials, who argue that their checks aim to identify counterfeit medicine rather than stopping people in developing countries from getting treatment, had been hoping to negotiate a way out of the dispute.
EU officials say they have no interest in halting the manufacture of generic drugs in developing countries or their legitimate export.
The case dates back to the seizure by Dutch customs in December 2008 of a blood pressure drug en route from India to Brazil.
A letter to the EU's WTO mission from India's WTO ambassador, Ujal Singh Bhatia, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, said Dutch customs had seized at least 19 consignments of generic drugs in 2008 and 2009, of which 16 originated in the Netherlands.
"India considers further that the measures at issue also have a serious adverse impact on the ability of developing and least-developed country members of the World Trade Organization to protect public health and to provide access to medicines for all," he said.
Brazil and India formally launched the dispute by requesting consultations with the EU and the Netherlands.
They now have 60 days to try and resolve it, otherwise Brazil and India can ask the WTO to set up a panel of experts to rule whether the European actions breach international trade rules.
The request coincided with the launch of a campaign by the drug manufacturers' association IFPMA against counterfeit drugs.
The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations said developing countries were particularly at risk from fake medicines -- a criminal activity.
"These criminals pose a threat to global public health: deliberately and deceitfully they attempt to pass off their dangerous products as legitimate medicines, and risk patients' lives in order to make illegal profits," it said in a statement.
But a group of more than 40 health and development advocacy groups called on the World Health Organisation not to allow concerns about fakes to be abused to extend protection for patents and trademarks unnecessarily.
The row comes as the EU and India aim to agree a free trade pact this year.
Brussels has also restarted talks on a trade deal with the Latin American bloc Mercosur dominated by Brazil.