Trillium News

Drug Firms Face Pressure to Address AIDS in Africa(Archive)

Can the reputation of the big drug companies sink any further?
The nadir came in April when the pharmaceutical industry dropped its lawsuit against South Africa. The drug companies had sued the South African government to prevent it from purchasing brand-name drugs from third parties at the cheapest prices possible. However, the spectacle of big drug companies defending the high prices of life-saving AIDS drugs quickly turned into a public relations meltdown for the pharmaceutical industry. Subsequently, the industry was forced to settle the case.
Debate on how to deliver life-saving AIDS treatment in developing countries has reached the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the United Nations. To repair their image, the drug companies have announced numerous initiatives to sell HIV/AIDS-related drugs at steep discounts.
Even more encouraging has been the emergence of a new movement linking people with AIDS in the South and activists in the North. Mark Gevisser, South African correspondent for The Nation, recently likened the movement to the anti-apartheid campaign and praised its potential to “battle against the negative consequences of the global economy and the manipulation of institutions like the WTO by multinational corporations.”
Dying Continent
Africa now accounts for 70% of the 36 million people with AIDS worldwide. More than 18 million Africans have died since the epidemic began. Of the 25 million people infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2000, 4.8 million are in immediate need of treatment, the United Nations estimates. Of those 4.8 million, all but 30,000 can expect to die without the drug cocktails that have helped transform AIDS from a slow killer into a chronic illness in the West.
Even as AIDS runs rampant in Africa, the world can make it stop. The drugs exist to dramatically reduce the symptoms and spread of AIDS. The developed world can afford to pay to produce and dispense those drugs. What is lacking is the political will to do so.
Corporate Globalization on Trial
Africa’s AIDS epidemic has been exacerbated by the workings of the global economy that works to keep developing countries poor and drug prices high.
Patent rules laid down by the WTO have helped drug companies keep their prices high and out of the reach of the sick and the poor. Under the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the drug companies enjoy an effective legal monopoly – enforced by trade sanctions – as drug patent holders across the world for a minimum of 20 years. This sweet deal for pharmaceutical industry was achieved through what Oxfam has termed “one of the most successful corporate lobbying campaigns in history.”
In principle, the TRIPS Agreement contains safeguards that give governments the right to override patents in the interests of public health. However, it is difficult for poorer countries to use these provisions. Poorer countries often lack the legal resources to interpret and implement these public health safeguards.
By contrast, powerful companies and rich countries are already using legal means to try to limit the public health safeguards of TRIPS. The recently dropped case brought against the South African government by 39 pharmaceutical companies was one example of this. Another example was the case brought by the U.S. Administration against Brazil at the WTO for producing generic versions of patented AIDS drugs. The U.S. has also threatened trade sanctions against India, the Dominican Republic, and Egypt for similar reasons.
Under this system, the winners are large northern-based drug companies that own 90% of pharmaceutical patents. The losers are the millions of people in poor countries that cannot afford vital medicines. Yet no drug manufacturer depends on profits in Africa, which will account for only 1.3% of global drug sales this year. Most manufacturers can sell their AIDS drugs at a 90% discount and still profit.
Reforming TRIPS
In its report: “WTO Patent Rules and Access to Medicines: The Pressure Mounts,” ( Oxfam proposes reforms to TRIPS to address the AIDS crisis in developing countries. Sadly, at the recent unprecedented June 20 session of the WTO requested by African nations to discuss drug patents, the U.S. Administration strongly defended the drug companies. Phil Bloomer of Oxfam told the London Guardian that the talks left WTO rules still “unbalanced and tipped firmly in favor of the pharmaceutical giants.”
Funding Health Systems
Simply reforming TRIPS and removing the barrier of drug patents is not enough. Affordable AIDS drugs still need to be administered by a public health system.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has proposed the Global Fund for AIDS. Modeled on similar health initiatives, such as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, the fund is designed to raise the $7-10 billion that the U.N. estimates is needed to beat back the AIDS epidemic. The fund’s ambitious goal represents five times the current annual spending on AIDS by governments and private donors combined. At present, pledges to the fund total only just over $500 million.
Just 1% of President Bush’s trillion dollar tax cuts would fully fund a $10 billion Global Fund for AIDS. However, the current U.S. pledge to the fund totals only $200 million. This is not only grossly inadequate, it is also dwarfed by the billions of dollars African countries pay in debt service. Jubilee USA’s Tim Atwater commented: “The $200 million which Bush has pledged for the Trust Fund is the same amount as sub-Saharan Africa spends on debt payments in less than a week. Congress writes the check on Monday. By Friday, Africa’s paid it back.”
Concerned Investors Take Action
Faced with corporate and government indifference, a powerful new coalition has arisen. As the United Nations convenes its Special Session on HIV/AIDS on June 23, thousands of activists will demonstrate in the streets. The coalition includes religious institutions, AIDS activists, labor unions African organizations, students, human rights groups, and the Jubilee network of campaigners urging the cancellation of Third World debt.
As activists have taken to the streets, concerned investors have moved into corporate boardrooms. Religious investors associated with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), have called on the drug companies to make life-saving drugs accessible and affordable in African countries. Through dialogue and shareholder resolutions, ICCR members have challenged the drug pricing policies of pharmaceutical giants including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer, Pharmacia, and Schering Plough. As companies have pledged to donate or reduce the cost of certain drugs, ICCR has charted their promises on its website
Hope for the Future
Despite the grim circumstances, there are some signs of hope. In his OpEd, Stephen Lewis noted:
A significant change has recently occurred in the way [AIDS] is viewed in Africa. Up until the middle of the year 2000, the focus was overwhelmingly on prevention and care. Then, abruptly.the ground shifted. Suddenly, “People Living With AIDS” began to make their voices heard, and their voices cried out for treatment.
In South Africa, these “People Living With AIDS” call themselves the Treatment Action Campaign. Taking on the drug companies and governments – including their own – head on, these foot soldiers are providing both a face and moral leadership to a struggle that pits profits against people.
During the anti-apartheid campaign, the people of South Africa taught the world the strategy and tactics of a worldwide solidarity movement. In the battle against AIDS, they may well teach us these lessons anew.