Newspapers, Columnists Weigh in on Trial in South Africa
The trial of a lawsuit by 39 pharmaceutical companies against the South African government over the country's generic drug importation law has sparked discussion and debate in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Excerpts from some editorials and opinion pieces are below:
- Wall Street Journal Europe: The decision to allow the AIDS group Treatment Action Campaign to participate in the trial "threatens to turn what should be a legal proceeding into a circus," a Journal editorial states. The editorial continues, "Turning a case about the constitutionality of an attempt to circumvent drug patents into a hearing on the severity of Africa's AIDS epidemic is a clear attempt to obfuscate. What is under dispute is not whether Africa faces a crisis, but whether co-opting the fruits of private companies' labor is a legal or appropriate way to cope with that crisis." It is "plain" that South Africa's 1997 Medicines and Related Substances Act -- the law in question in the trial -- is "counterproductive at best and destructive at worst," the Journal argues. Drug makers' fears that other countries would adopt legislation similar to the South African law "was not mere scare mongering," the Journal states, pointing to Kenya's recent plans to introduce legislation that would allow the country to import generic anti-AIDS drugs. The editorial concludes, "Africa's AIDS crisis is real. ... But things are not nearly as bad as they might have been if there were no AIDS drugs at all. ... The only way to ensure that such drugs -- and perhaps even a cure -- will be available in the long term is to safeguard the incentives to produce them" (Wall Street Journal Europe, 3/8).
- Johannesburg Business Day: Columnist Simon Barber writes that there is "little evidence that the absence of patents makes AIDS medicines more affordable or available." Barber states that although many have called for increased access to cheaper generic drugs, lax importation laws might not be the best strategy. "It is perhaps worth pondering," he writes, "whether a single world market for pharmaceuticals, which would be the logical outcome of parallel importation if everyone practiced it, is such a hot idea for poor countries whose drug costs, especially in the public sector, are effectively subsidized by the United States and other affluent consumers." He concludes, "It would be wonderful, of course, if South Africa's decimation by AIDS could genuinely be blamed on greedy firms that might be brought to heel with a couple of paragraphs of legislation. Government would be spared so many agonizing choices including whether even to make antiretrovirals available at public expense" (Barber, Business Day, 3/7).
- Washington Post: Barry Bloom, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, cites the tuberculosis epidemic as one example of why "just sprinkling AIDS drugs around the world ... won't be enough." Bloom explains that patient "compliance" with the multidrug regimen necessary to cure TB has historically been "poor," leading to "emerging resistance and the ultimate nightmare: multidrug resistant TB." The "danger of resistance" for HIV is "far greater" than that for TB, since HIV "mutates much faster and treatment is for a lifetime, not merely six months," Bloom states. He suggests a study of whether HIV treatment in developing countries could be successfully modeled after TB treatment by implementing directly observed treatment regimes, in which community members check up on local HIV patients to ensure they are properly taking their medication. Developing nations also must set up a system to determine who receives priority in getting antiretroviral treatment, he says, and top priority should go to pregnant women, sex workers and truck drivers (Bloom, Washington Post, 3/9).
- Philadelphia Inquirer: An Inquirer editorial calls for greater cooperation between drug companies and governments in fighting HIV/AIDS. The editorial states, "Western pharmaceutical companies and the governments that headquarter them should work with generic drug producers ... to manufacture and distribute treatments more inexpensively." Meanwhile, drug companies "are justified in wanting assurances that, if they do make AIDS drugs more available to developing countries, their goods will not be smuggled to other markets," the Inquirer says. The editorial calls for an eventual restructuring of the pricing system for anti-AIDS drugs (Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/6).
- Baltimore Sun: "[T]here is nothing economic in a price that keeps a product out of a market," a Sun editorial declares. The editorial acknowledges that drug firms are protecting their patent rights to "recoup the cost of research and development," but these companies should also "lead in creating a system that makes treatment available where the AIDS scourge is greatest, while keeping drugs profitable to invent" (Baltimore Sun, 3/7).
- Honolulu Star-Bulletin: The problem of patents and AIDS drugs is "complex," but "more must be done" to reduce the price of antiretrovirals, according to a Star-Bulletin editorial. The editorial states, "It will not win many votes, but the Bush team ought to turn its attention from promoting its tax-cut proposals long enough to put together a serious plan to address the AIDS crisis in Africa -- for the sake of Americans as well as Africans" (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 3/5).
- Bangkok Post: The trial in South Africa "is a litmus test on the ability of the world's richest drug companies to protect their patent rights against a government desperately seeking an affordable way to fight AIDS," and the outcome of the case will have "tremendous repercussions" for Thailand, a Bangkok Post editorial states. With its "ailing economy" and its approximately one million HIV-infected citizens, Thailand "faces a similar predicament to South Africa," the Post states. The editorial explains that the Thai government "must explore" the option of purchasing or producing cheaper generic drugs "if it wishes to save lives," an option "far more rewarding than being held hostage by profiteering drug companies." The editorial concludes, "The policy of drug companies of putting profits before ... lives ... is appalling. Clearly, there is a need for review. The price of their drugs must be reduced to reasonable levels, levels which are affordable to all, or most, who are in need of them" (Bangkok Post, 3/7).
- Progressive magazine: "The Bush administration's clumsy act of announcing that it was closing both the Office of National AIDS policy and the office on race relations on Feb. 7, then hastily rescinding that decision on the same day, does not bode well" for AIDS activists hoping that Bush will side with the South African government in the trial, a Progressive editorial states. The editorial argues that Bush must do something "more dramatic" than simply uphold former President Clinton's executive order excluding sub-Saharan African countries from U.S. trade and patent laws concerning HIV/AIDS pharmaceuticals. "To attack the AIDS plague will mean debt forgiveness, massive public funding for public health education, condom distribution, needle exchanges and widespread, cheap distribution of drugs to those who are infected with HIV. ... A real, working solution to the global AIDS crisis will require U.S. and European governments to put lives ahead of patent law," the editorial concludes (Progressive, March 2001).
- AIDS Treatment News: Production of generic drugs has been the "one success so far" in the fight against HIV/AIDS, AIDS Treatment News Editor John James writes in a commentary. However, "generic manufacture and competition will not solve the problem by itself," he states, adding that many African nations cannot afford to treat their infected populations even at generic prices. While "[t]here is no quick or total solution to making HIV or other treatment available to everyone in the world," governments and other institutions must work together to find a solution that will "bring steady improvement," James writes. James states that providing antiretroviral treatment to poorer citizens may be less costly than the economic impact HIV will have on the workforce, as well as the cost of treating those ill with opportunistic infections. He adds that drug firms "care little" about sales in developing nations -- the issue really centers on the possible erosion of their market in more affluent countries. Noting that drug makers are "not even expected to maintain adequate supplies of life-critical medications in rich countries," James suggests that large drug firms should be "expected to have a public-interest department" that "would focus on creative ways of advancing the public interest" (James, AIDS Treatment News, 3/5).