Pharmaceutical Corporations and AIDS
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US Threatened Trade Sanctions on South Africa for Trying to Help its People
In the middle of 1999, the interests of the pharmaceutical industry (via lobbying through Vice President Al Gore3) had resulted in the US actually threatening South Africa with trade sanctions4 for trying to develop generic and cheaper drugs to fight AIDS etc.
An industry association, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Glaxo-Wellcome, and Pfizer, which make the most widely used AIDS drugs, had charged South Africa with violating the World Trade Organization's rules regarding patents and intellectual property.
However, there was nothing illegal about what South Africa was doing, and so the the actions of the pharmaceutical industry drew a lot of criticism that they were concerned mostly about the impacts to their sales. (While the World Trade Organization's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement is controversial for many other aspects in its provisions, it still allows the ability for South Africa to produce cheaper drugs due to national emergencies and because it is for public, non-commercial use.)
Subsequent strong lobbying by Act Up-New York, James Love, Ralph Nader's Consumer Project on Technology and others seem to have managed to force Gore to back down, for now.
It has truly been incredible that such a motion was even considered in the first place. (Or is it, given that the underlying goal for most pharmaceutical companies is "profit at all costs5"?, as charged by Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment. The way that various international trade agreements are negotiated and dominated has not been atypical of this, either.)
Also, now that there is a possibility that the economy6 of various countries in Africa will be affected, the US will refrain from imposing sanctions on Sub-Saharan governments.
The possible implications of such a trade sanction would have been considerable when realizing that, according to UNICEF, more people in Africa have died from AIDS than from conflicts 7.
But Pharmaceutical companies continue the pressure
However, that has not stopped the pharmaceutical industry continuing to pursue its interests. Some 40 such companies took South Africa to court 8 beginning of March 2001, over language in the Medicines Act which would allow for generic production and parallel importing of affordable AIDS drugs.
The public outrage around the world that resulted from these companies trying to do such a thing while people were dying led to them drop their case9 in April, 2001.
In fact, while there have been a number of apparent successes by pressure groups crying for more justice, as Jamie Love suggests, a lot of the resulting actions by pharmaceutical companies and supportive governments has been "just slick humanitarian-flavored spin". For example, he points out that:
- "the real issue is that the major pharmaceutical companies still maintain control over who can manufacture their patented drugs and how much they cost"
- developing countries have not really been allowed in any major way to issue "compulsory licenses that would allow generic drug manufacturers to create cheap and ubiquitous versions of AIDS drugs" with which "developing nations would drive down the cost of raw materials, increase competition and make the drugs more widely available."
- he is "unimpressed by the fact that pharmaceutical companies, pressured by public opinion and media coverage, have taken positive steps to make AIDS drugs cheaper and easier to get. In almost every case, as he points out, they are simply dropping prices or just giving the pills away rather than granting licenses for local manufacture. And he doesn't believe that corporate largess alone will be enough to stave off one of the worst epidemics in human history."
You can see the above points made by an article in Salon.com from Daryl Lindsey, called The AIDS-drug warrior10, who talks about the outspoken AIDS-drug activist, mentioned above Jamie Love.
(The issue of maintaining control over who can manufacture the drugs and their costs, are forms of dependency that assure inequality. This is described more in the poverty11 section of this web site.)
While, as the French paper, Le Monde reports, Pfizer and 10 others have promised to give the US Congress General Accounting Office all the data it needs to check drug prices, another issue has also emerged, which is the benefits that some universities get from the patents:
The same article above continues to point out about Yale University activists commenting on the decision to lower drug prices. Those activists point out that "What we really wanted is a shift in the whole balance of power about the issue, until the decision-making process about health care is really in the hands of people who need that health care. They don't actually give up the patent itself in South Africa. Anything that affects the relationship between the university and a drug company is a very touchy subject because the university made a big amount of money out of there."
Some economic causes and impacts of AIDS
Consider the following:
- The AIDS epidemic is so devastating that the World Bank and UNAIDS eventually launched a new partnership in 1999 to raise the level14 of response as people began to realize15 the seriousness of it.
- Debt "relief" policies promoted by the World Bank, IMF and the wealthy nations that finance them are also believed to be creating an environment that would not help tackle the AIDS crisis effectively and that debt actually exacerbates AIDS, according to a report16 from the World Development Movement.
- Structural Adjustment policies from the IMF and World Bank are seen by some as a fancy word for enforcing cutbacks. It means that resources that could have been used to help tackle this issue (and many other issues that affect the developing nations) are being cut back.
- "It is no coincidence17 that the AIDS crisis has exploded most dramatically in highly indebted countries", according to Jubilee 2000. (For more about how structural adjustment policies can affect entire peoples and make situations worse, check out this site's Structural Adjustment18 section.)
Africa Action, an organization looking into political, economic and social justice for Africa has an article on the impacts of IMF and World Bank structural adjustments and its impacts on health in Africa, and is worth quoting at length: