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For Love Nor Money
Stuart Macdonald

"Africa has nine percent of global population and one in every nine of its adults is infected with HIV or Aids. Were this level of infection to be repeated in Asia, which is home to eighty percent of the world's people, the consequences for the human race would be dire."

For those of you actually intending to vote in the upcoming general election, Tony Blair has gone out of his way to make your choice as straightforward as possible. In the recently abandoned Aids drugs trial involving the South African government and the world's largest pharmaceuticals, the British Prime Minister gave his firm backing to the ridiculous stance which was adopted by corporate giants such as Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) and AstraZeneca.

The 39 drugs companies, whose top ten made collective gross profits of $121bn from sales of $179bn in America last year, felt that laws which had been introduced by the South African government conflicted with their patent interests. This patent protection, which is enshrined in the WTO's Trips legislation (trade-related intellectual property rights agreement), was apparently under threat from the South African government, as they wanted to be able to make and buy cheaper generic forms of the major Aids treatments.
South Africa has 4mn patients diagnosed as HIV positive and in Africa as a whole, the figure numbers some 25mn - or seventy percent of the world's total. The cocktail of drugs necessary to treat those who develop Aids from HIV, can cost as much as $10,000 per person per year. It is therefore no surprise that the cheaper generics produced quite legally in India and Argentina are in high demand.

According to the companies, the protection of their intellectual property by international patents, which normally run for 20 years, is crucial to ensure that they can afford to carry out the intense investment which is necessary to produce anti-retroviral drugs such as Nevirapine. It is estimated that to bring a drug to the market costs between $300mn and $500mn, due to the large scale tests which are required by the industry watchdogs. However, in 1999, prior to the merger that created GSK, GlaxoWellcome's turnover was £8.4bn, of which £1.3bn was ploughed back into research and development, leaving £2.8bn of operating profit. According to a recent article in the Guardian, some companies spend up to twice as much on marketing their wares, as they do in their development. These are hardly the figures of pauper organisations.

So why did the court case even occur? And more importantly, why did Britain's Prime Minister openly voice his support for the mass action by the drugs companies? They were quite blatantly putting profits before people and any protestations to the contrary are quite untenable. Tony Blair knows all of this, yet he is also acutely aware of the fact that many British jobs are dependent on companies like Pfizer and GSK maintaining production in the UK. As we have seen in George W Bush's recent election victory in the US, valuable political donations often come from pharmaceuticals. With an election campaign looming, it could be said that Blair felt it prudent to keep big business on side to as great a degree as possible.

Regardless of all of these political shenanigans, the importance of the result in South Africa should not be underestimated. It has meant that the South African authorities have given themselves a golden opportunity to prolong and perhaps even save the lives of many of their people. The drugs companies dropped their action on 19 April 2001, however South Africa has yet to decide how to wield its new-found power. Why is this, when one forecast has stated that as many as half of today's 15 year-old South Africans will die of Aids before they reach 35?

As always, the problem is one of scare resources to tackle a problem so huge that it is daunting to even try to think where to begin. Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, began at the very basics of the issue by commissioning a 33-strong panel of experts to examine whether or not there is a definite link between HIV and Aids. The panel has taken a year to report that they can agree on nothing except that the issue requires further debate.

The very existence of such a debate may strike observers as bizarre, yet there are many prominent scientists (such as Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick) who believe that poverty and education are far more important than has previously been considered and that many of the current anti-retroviral drugs do more harm than good. Mbeki is right to be cautious, given that the money available to his government is restricted. However, action needs to be taken now, in order to prevent the situation in South Africa from becoming any worse.

The manner in which Brazil has tackled its HIV-Aids problem is generally considered to be the example to which all other countries should aspire. They have invested heavily in purchasing and producing generic anti-retroviral drugs so as to make them available to everyone who requires treatment, whether they can afford it or not. Since these drugs became available free of charge in 1996, the Brazilian death rate from Aids has more than halved, according to the most recent statistics. This is one piece of good news in the battle against a disease which is set to surpass the Bubonic plague as the greatest ever killer of humankind. The main reason for this is the spread of the virus into Asia and particularly into China and India.

Africa has nine percent of global population and one in every nine of its adults is infected with HIV or Aids. Were this level of infection to be repeated in Asia, which is home to eighty percent of the world's people, the consequences for the human race would be dire. The means by which the Chinese, Indians etc, deal with their looming epidemic will largely be dictated by how South Africa approaches their current predicament. If they are able to pursue measures which effectively address the problem and begin to lower the rate of infection, then this will be seen as a huge success.

Last month's decision by leaders of the world's richest nations, to establish a £2.7bn fund to help pay for Aids drugs for poorer countries was a huge step in the right direction. It allows for the drugs companies to protect their precious patents and addresses the infinitely more important issue of the treatment of Aids patients around the world and not just those privileged few who can afford to pay for it themselves. As a player in this agreement, Tony Blair has gone some way to atoning for his endorsement of the pharmaceuticals' position, yet the situation remains in Africa that a continent is dying whilst waiting for patents to expire and that cannot be right.

© Stuart Macdonald 2001

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