South Africa Will Not Declare AIDS National Emergency
The South African government announced yesterday that it will not declare HIV/AIDS a national emergency, a move that under World Trade Organization rules would have allowed the country to import generic drugs "regardless of objections from drug firms claiming abuse of patent rights," Reuters reports (Reuters, 3/13). South African President Thabo Mbeki in Parliament today called the move "not necessary." Speaking in response to a question posed by opposition leader Tony Leon, Mbeki said, "Declaring a national emergency for the simple reason of accessing any drug sends a signal that tends to narrow the response to AIDS to the issue of one particular set of drugs" (Lovell, Reuters, 3/14). He added that the move would have "other complex consequences for the country, which are undesirable, especially where there are other ways to achieve the same objective -- that is obtaining affordable access to all medicines" (Cohen, Associated Press, 3/14). The decision "commits" the government to fight a lawsuit brought by 39 pharmaceutical companies, represented by the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association of South Africa, that seeks to block the Medicines Control Act that would allow the government to import or manufacture cheaper generic AIDS drugs. The drug companies argue that the law violates international trade law and infringes on their patent protections. The case has been postponed until April 18 to allow AIDS advocates and the drug companies time to prepare testimony. "(Calls for an emergency) seem calculated to divert attention from the government's defense, through the courts, of our people's basic right to affordable drugs," Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said yesterday (Reuters, 3/13). Mbeki dismissed arguments that the government's refusal to declare a state of emergency indicated a lack of government commitment to fighting the disease. "I see no reason not to rely on the comprehensive legislation approved by this house and now before the courts. ... There is no basis for asserting that the government is not taking this seriously" (Reuters, 3/14). Leon argued, "Last year an estimated 250,000 South Africans died of AIDS. It is estimated that more than four million South Africans are sick or dying of AIDS at the moment and if that isn't an emergency, it is difficult to know what is" (Associated Press, 3/14).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.