Newspapers, Op-Eds Continue to Weigh In on Drug Access Issues in Developing Countries
Newspapers continue to publish editorials and op-eds responding to the latest round of AIDS drug price cuts and the lawsuit brought by 39 pharmaceutical companies against the 1997 South African Medicines and Related Substances Act, which would allow the nation to produce or import lower-cost AIDS medications. Summaries of some of the opinions appear below:
Wall Street Journal: "It is not [the pharmaceutical industry] that is in a vise, but rather all who believe in rules and constitutions," Dr. Harvey Bale, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, writes in response to a March 2 Wall Street Journal
article on the
South African drug
lawsuit. Bale writes that the lawsuit was filed by the companies because South Africa's 1997 Medicines Control Act gives the government "arbitrary powers" that would "transgress" the country's constitution and "contradict" already existing patent legislation, allowing the government to "modify and weaken" patents that protect the industry's research and development. He notes that the Journal article did not mention three facts, including:
- The industry suspended the case for eight months between 1999 and 2000 when the government indicated it would like to settle the case.
- The case was reintroduced last year after the government "failed to deliver" on "proposed corrective changes" to the law.
- The pharmaceutical industry already offers the government "very substantial" price discounts of up to 80% on medications for use in the public sector.
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution: South African President Thabo Mbeki must "acknowledge the [AIDS] crisis and embrace the opportunity to save his nation," an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial states in response to Mbeki's refusal to declare AIDS a national emergency. Mbeki's reasoning that the clause could only be invoked to "restore peace and order when the life of the nation was threatened" is the "perfect rationalization," the editorial states sarcastically. The editorial asks, "After all, is it not a threat to the life of the nation when 4.5 million mothers, fathers and children are carrying a deadly, infectious virus?" Citing South African Institute of International Affairs Executive Director Greg Mills' statement published in the Washington Post that South Africa may "run the risk of looking like another unstable player in an unstable region" if the country declared a state of emergency, the editorial concludes that by not doing so, "Mbeki is actually contributing to the instability by avoiding a role of regional leadership." (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 3/16).
- Akron Beacon Journal: "Caring for the sick, the dying and the orphaned is rapidly weakening already burdened social and economic structures and blighting any hope of development across the continent [of Africa]," an Akron Beacon Journal editorial states. "The endemic problems and leadership failures that fueled the African epidemic have been compounded by the pricing and marketing policies of drug companies," the editorial continues. But pressure on the drug industry is "paying off" as Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb have announced price cuts and patent relaxations respectively. "The change of heart and policy offers immeasurable help in desperate circumstances. However, containing the epidemic in Africa will require concerted and sustained international and local effort," the editorial continues. Vaccine efforts, aid from richer nations and "fundamental shifts" in the priorities of African governments are needed, the editorial concludes (Akron Beacon Journal, 3/16).
- Bergen Record: The announced drug discounts and patent relaxations mark "significant progress" in the "push" to get affordable AIDS drugs to Africans, a Bergen Record editorial says. "Now the world's wealthier nations need to fund a humanitarian plan to get these drugs and related treatments to the people who desperately need them," the editorial continues. The editorial encourages other pharmaceutical firms to reduce prices and "go even further" and stop resisting efforts by generic drug makers to sell their low-cost versions to Africa (Bergen Record, 3/16).
- Omaha World-Herald: The attention being paid to drug prices has taken the focus off of the "irresponsible sex practices," such as "macho" African men who refuse to wear condoms, that are at the root of the epidemic in Africa, Harold Andersen, former publisher of the Omaha World-Herald, writes in an op-ed. Changing sexual practices would be "extremely difficult" because they are "ingrained in the way of life in much of Africa," but treatment of those infected with HIV cannot wait and must be attacked with "determination and vigor" (Andersen, Omaha World-News, 3/15).
- Arizona Daily Star: Drug companies should follow Merck's lead in order to "rid themselves of the taint of greed," a Arizona Daily Star editorial says. Although the pharmaceutical companies appear to be backing down on AIDS drugs, their response "appears to be more a matter of self interest rather than humanitarian concern," the editorial continues. Drug prices in the United States are expected to remain high because the companies "judiciously employ effective lobbyists to protect them against annoying reformers," the editorial concludes (Arizona Daily Star, 3/13).
- Nando Times: Patent protections and the major drug makers are on "shaky legs," Bruce Hilton, director of the National Center for Bioethics, writes in a Nando Times op-ed. New competition from generic drug makers and image problems have finally started to "hit home," and South Africa's attempt to legalize exceptions to international patent law may have a "domino effect" across Africa and other developing nations, Hilton says. Brazil already manufactures its own versions of some patented AIDS medications and is threatening to begin making two more if prices do not come down. But perhaps the "clearest sign" of the drug makers' weakness is the recent price reduction announced by Merck, Hilton concludes (Hilton, Nando Times, 3/13).
- New York Times: The South African lawsuit has "energiz[ed] AIDS activists against the drug industry," resulting in a "public relations disaster" for the drug firms, according to a New York Times editorial. Companies are now responding with discounted prices, but "[w]elcome as they are, lower drug prices alone will not solve the AIDS crisis," the editorial continues, adding that the solution "will require a concerted political commitment by the governments in afflicted poor nations and financial support from rich countries." The "real battle" now lies in finding ways to finance the purchase of the drugs and the clinics and medical personnel required to properly administer them, the editorial states. No rich nation has "seriously" taken up the case of purchasing AIDS medications. The Times suggests the creation of a separate international fund for the bulk purchase of AIDS medications as one possible solution (New York Times, 3/12).
- San Francisco Chronicle: "Whether it was damage control or corporate charity, major drug makers were wise to announce huge price cuts in costly AIDS drugs badly needed in poor countries," a San Francisco Chronicle editorial states. The companies have "sensibly backed off" of their high prices, offering a "glimpse of hope" in the fight against AIDS (San Francisco Chronicle, 3/12).
- Chicago Tribune: The African AIDS epidemic has succeeded in putting pressure to reduce drug prices on major pharmaceutical companies, and they "fortunately" seem to be responding, but it will take time for such discounts to "trickle down" to the poorest countries, a Chicago Tribune editorial states. And while these discounts are "welcome," the critics of the pharmaceutical industry's suit against South Africa are using "unfair" arguments, the editorial continues. Patent laws "must be protected" because they give "incentive to invest in the very research that can lead to new drugs to save AIDS victims." Education and prevention may be the "most humane course" in Africa for now, the editorial states, concluding that the continent's medical infrastructure must be improved before the drugs can be properly administered and monitored. But the drugs remain an important part of the treatment scheme and "should be made affordable to all nations" (Chicago Tribune, 3/12).