Following Court Victory, AIDS Activists Shift Focus on South African Government AIDS Drug Policies
Following the pharmaceutical industry's decision last week to drop its lawsuit against the South African government, AIDS advocates concluded that the "next big barrier" to expanding access to AIDS treatments "might well be the government itself," the New York Times reports. The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association of South Africa and 39 pharmaceutical companies last week agreed to drop their lawsuit against the South African government over a law that would allow the country to import and manufacture cheaper generic AIDS drugs. Following the victory, AIDS advocates had hoped to "hear a sense of urgency" from government officials about providing treatments. Instead, South Africa's Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang "made it clear that providing AIDS drugs was not a government priority." She said, "For the moment, the best advice is to treat opportunistic infections. ... We are indeed treating people who are HIV-positive. It is not correct to say that just because we do not provide antiretrovirals that we are not treating people." Following the health minister's lead, the ruling African National Congress in its online newspaper listed "countless reasons why the country should think twice about providing lifesaving AIDS cocktails," the Times reports. Such comments have "revived concerns" about the South African government's commitment to providing treatment for its 4.7 million HIV-positive residents, the Times reports. In response, AIDS activists have decided to "turn up the heat" in their efforts to persuade officials to provide treatments that are "readily available in the West" (Swarns, New York Times, 4/21). Thanduxolo Doro of the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS said, "We need not only government, but also the private sector including pharmaceuticals, traditional healers and faith-based organizations, to combine resources for treatment." The Treatment Action Campaign is calling on the government and private companies to expand access to treatment and urging the government to provide Nevirapine to reduce vertical transmission of HIV. TAC Chair Zackie Achmat said, "In the short term, we want the government to have a treatment strategy and a plan. We also want the private sector to announce they will put their employees on antiretroviral treatment and assist in bringing the prices down." He added, "We hope to have a treatment plan in place by Dec. 1 and to roll out antiretrovirals in the public sector by New Year." The Congress of South African Trade Unions, representing 1.7 million members, said it plans to "appeal to major employers to supply antiretroviral drugs to employees and their families" (Keeton, Agence Free-Presse/Washington Times, 4/21).
Settlement Will Not Harm Drug Makers
Although the pharmaceutical industry agreed to drop its suit against South Africa, some experts say the decision will not "cost the drug companies anything of substance." Amir Attaran, director of international health research at Harvard University's Center for International Development, said, "It is largely symbolic." Still, the Times reports that the settlement is "expected to embolden other developing nations" because the industry is "not likely" to challenge another developing country's efforts to manufacture cheaper AIDS treatments. Ron Bayer, a public health expert and professor at Columbia University, said that drug makers "lost by pursuing this case, not ending it. It was a strategic blunder. Agreeing to pay South Africa's court costs is an amazing kind of defeat," but only on the public relations front (Gellene, Los Angeles Times, 4/21).