AIDS Activists’ Fight Against Drug Companies Holds ‘Echoes of the Past’
"The AIDS activist movement was born in the late 1980s with the pharmaceutical industry as its nemesis," New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in a Sunday Times Week in Review piece. At the time, the fight was over access to experimental medicine and AZT, but after newer drug cocktails turned AIDS in the United States from a "killer" to a "chronic illness," the pharmaceutical industry "became a savior, the activism lost its urgency and the epidemic fell off the American radar screen." But now that "AIDS is back on the front page," the activists are "back in business, drawing strength from their old enemy," she writes. Drug companies are now caught in a "squeeze play," Stolberg says, "hemmed in on one side by moral outrage over the plight of Africans dying for lack of medications readily available in the United States, and on the other by an intense pharmaceutical pricing debate here at home." On one hand, drug companies seeking "some kind of redemption" have been "scrambling" to offer discounts, with last week's announced cuts from Bristol-Myers Squibb following a similar pledge from Merck & Co. the week before. But on the other hand, those price cuts could "backfire," Stolberg writes. According to Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, the price cuts give the impression that the drug firms -- also under fire in the U.S. for the high cost of drugs used by senior citizens -- are "sitting on big profits." Though the companies claim the money is needed to underwrite research and development costs, activists say the big firms "often rely" on government-funded science and startup biotech companies for R&D. Taking an "opportunity to bring the disparity [in drug access] to the fore" during the last presidential campaign, members of ACT UP/Philadelphia began "shadowing" Democratic nominee Al Gore in 1999, "staging noisy rallies that painted him as the pharmaceutical industry's front man in trade talks with South Africa," one of the nations hardest hit by HIV. The accusation was "unsettling...for a candidate who made the high cost of pharmaceuticals for senior citizens a centerpiece of his campaign, and it worked," as the Clinton administration announced it would not seek economic sanctions against poor nations that imported or produced generic drugs in an "attempt to force down the price of patented AIDS drugs," Stolberg writes. The Bush administration has "surpris[ingly]" kept that policy. Now the debate is shifting from drug prices to the question of what wealthy nations should do to aid the fight against AIDS in the developing world. Activists say they hope to "keep the debate from shifting too far in that direction" and add they "won't allow drug companies to foist the problem off on the government and avoid dropping prices further" (Stolberg, New York Times, 3/18).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.