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 Gore) had resulted in the US actually threatening South Africa with trade sanctions 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 costs"?, 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 economy 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.
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 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 case 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 warrior, 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 poverty 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 level of response as people began to realize 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 report 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 coincidence 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 Adjustment 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:
The article also comments on recent increases in funds to tackle HIV/AIDS and other problems and concludes that because some underlying causes and issues are not addressed, these steps may not have much effective impact:
For more about this issue, also check out the following:
- Consumer Project on Technology has a good explanation of the issues involved and also up to date news on this issue.
- Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting have a great piece criticizing an ABC July 8 1999 show on the topic as they suggest that the show was more of a "brief for the drug industry" and that it didn't even interview many experts on the issue. The same criticism is for ABC's March 8, 2001 show.
- Act Up! DC has a page on AIDS drugs for Africa Now!
- Democratizing Access to Essential Medicines from Foreign Policy in Focus, looks at Washington's actions and makes the important point that "compulsory licensing and parallel importing policies could help developing country governments make essential medicines more affordable to their citizens" and yet the policies of Washington are almost the opposite.
- From Le Monde Diplomatique:
- "Apartheid of Pharmacology" shows that it isn't just AIDS drugs and treatment that have faced industrial pressure.
- "Safeguarding the future" questions the effect of patents on drugs given the resulting problem so for many AIDS sufferers.
- "Who Owns Knowledge?"
- Many links to additional web sites are also provided.
- "A Bitter Pill For The World's Poor" by Isabel Hilton, the Guardian.
- OneWorld and its partner organizations have been reporting on the issue of AIDS in developing countries for a number of years now. They have a number of major sections from where you can start:
- "AIDS and the World Bank: Global Blackmail?" looks into some of the global politics at play and the effects of some reactions from South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki.
- A look at the role of drug companies by the BBC as part of their special report on AIDS.
- There are additional resources provided on this web site's other sections that also look at AIDS and related issues:
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