For Love Nor
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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