Christian Science Monitor Examines Battle Over AIDS Drugs, Patents and Profits
"In the glare of international campaigns for cheaper medicine, the big pharmaceutical companies are now scrambling to cut the prices they charge in African countries for HIV/AIDS drugs" while fighting to protect their patent rights to the medications, the Christian Science Monitor reports in a feature story on generic drugs and patent protection. AIDS activists such as South Africa's Zackie Achmat and the director of a Kenyan orphanage are taking new steps to circumvent the drug makers and bring affordable medicines to people with HIV/AIDS. Last year, Achmat defied South African law by bringing 5,000 generic capsules of the antifungal drug fluconazole into the country from Thailand. He paid $1,200 for the medicine, which would have cost $51,500 in South Africa, where Pfizer holds a patent. "We wanted to set a moral example, and put the right to life and health before profit," he said, adding that activists "don't want to be smugglers -- this is the government's job to do." Pfizer and 41 other drug companies have filed a "landmark" lawsuit to prevent the government from importing generic versions of HIV/AIDS drugs. The suit challenges a 1997 South African law that would allow health officials to "bypass drug patents and import cheaper generic medicines." The case comes before a South African court next week.
International Organizations Join the Mix
Organizations such as Oxfam have become more active in the fight to bring AIDS drugs to developing countries, accusing the drug companies and western governments of waging "an undeclared drugs war against the world's poorest countries." Oxfam last month launched a global campaign aimed at cutting drug prices for AIDS medications and other diseases common to the developing world. "The balance has skewed too far towards corporate wealth rather than public health," Justin Forsyth, Oxfam's director of policy, said. Drug companies have responded to the "glare" of the campaigns by "scrambling to cut the prices" of AIDS drugs in developing countries, the Monitor reports. GlaxoSmithKline, which has already lowered its HIV drug prices through its Accelerated Access program, is currently reviewing its developing world pricing policy, according to a spokesperson, and expects to make further cuts this summer when the review is completed. However, drug companies maintain that "without patent protection, and the profits that come with it, they would have no incentive to spend millions of dollars on inventing new and more effective cures."
Fighting Over TRIPs
AIDS advocates warn that new international trade rules spelled out in the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Trade Related Property Rights, or TRIPs agreement, will extend patent protection to 20 years and could drive the prices of "essential" drugs up as much as 300%. The rules, which are being phased in through 2006, allow nations to violate patents in cases of "national emergency or extreme urgency." But nations and drug companies are divided on just what "national emergency," which is not defined in the agreement, means. U.S. trade representatives have filed a complaint with WTO over Brazil's manufacturing of generic drugs, and the United States has also "formally threatened" trade sanctions against the Dominican Republic, Thailand and 15 other nations if they do not cease manufacturing, exporting or importing generic versions of patented drugs. However, the Bush administration has signaled its intent to abide by a 1999 Clinton executive order that promises "not to pursue [African] governments that legalize generic copies of antiAIDS drugs."
Cipla Offers Cheap Alternatives
Indian drug manufacturer Cipla is "[f]eeding the controversy" by offering discounted generic AIDS medications to the aid group Doctors Without Borders. Indian law only recognizes patents on methods of drug manufacturing, not on the drugs themselves, allowing the company to legally manufacture the drugs if they alter the manufacturing technique. But the company has had to fight to export its drugs to Africa because of "threats" by the patent-holding companies. "This is not a normal commercial situation where we talk about commerce and patents," Cipla's Joint Managing Director Amar Lulla said. "In Africa ... they're talking about a whole generation being wiped out. Something has to be done," he added. Despite the legal maneuvering, Oxfam's Sophia Tickell, one of the leaders of the group's campaign, is encouraged by the recent dialogue. "Very, very hardheaded patent enforcement is going to soften," she said (Christian Science Monitor, 2/28).