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
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
The possible implications of such a trade sanction would have been considerable when realizing that, according
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
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 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."
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:
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 explanation21
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 show22 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 show23.
Act Up! DC has a page on AIDS drugs for Africa Now!24
Democratizing Access to Essential Medicines25
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 Pharmacology26"
shows that it isn't just AIDS drugs and treatment that have faced industrial pressure.
"Safeguarding the future27"
questions the effect of patents on drugs given the resulting problem so for many AIDS sufferers.
Around the world, large numbers of people suffer unnecessarily and die from often easily preventable illnesses and conditions. For example, an estimated 1 billion people lack access to health care systems while millions die each year from diseases such as malaria, Tuberculosis and AIDS.
While health service provision is a desire for most people, nations struggle to find sufficient funds as they face high drug prices (sometimes with drug companies challenging countries—especially poor ones—that may legally try to create cheaper generic ones when faced with urgent health issues) while changing lifestyles are contributing to deteriorating health.