Africa shuns US move allowing access to cheaper AIDS drugs
Developing countries are not exactly queuing up at the US Trade Department to take advantage of flexible patent regulations allowing them to access cheaper AIDS drugs. The reason may be due to mixed signals coming out of Washington, says Gumisai Mutume.
the US government has been at pains to explain that unlike before, it
will not harass sub-Saharan African governments over patent requirements
on AIDS medicines, pharmaceutical companies say they are willing to fight.
December, we have been explaining the new policy to other countries that
if they can show that they have a serious health problem, we would consider
it, 'says assistant US trade representative Joseph Papovich. 'By spring
this year, no countries had come forward.'
than a decade, the United States has been pushing an aggressive TRIPS
regime to pressure any government that violates US patents and copyrights.
pharmaceutical industry has made it clear that it is opposed to an executive
order issued by US President Bill Clinton in May, which loosened rigid
enforcement of US intellectual property laws regarding AIDS drugs for
sub-Saharan African nations.
the wrong signal,' says Shannon Herzfeld, senior vice president for international
affairs at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturer's Association
(PHRMA). 'Yes, we would like it to be withdrawn.'
can be trade barriers in disguise. We need rules which are fair and transparent
and rules which do not hamper our ability to sell our medicines because
a local industry has failed to stay modern.'
industry says for every 15,000 chemical and molecular compounds it investigates,
only three become suitable for human use and one becomes a profitable
medicine. On average, this process takes 12 years.
95% of the 34.4 million people infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide have no
access to medication and more than 60% of infections are in sub-Saharan
executive order says: 'Should a government determine to avail itself of
the flexibility the TRIPS Agreement provides to address a health care
crisis, the United States will raise no objection, provided the policy
employed is consistent with the provisions of the WTO TRIPS Agreement.'
It offers a lifeline to sub-Saharan African nations.
has raised concerns in the US pharmaceutical industry that the order will
essentially permit unauthorised copying of its products. According to
Herzfeld: 'AIDS drugs are hard to make, easy to steal.'
five AIDS drug manufacturers agreed to lower the price of AIDS medication
for Africa and the US Export-Import Bank extended a $1 billion annual
loan facility to a number of sub-Saharan nations to import US-made AIDS
the move has been seen as an attempt to dilute attempts by African nations
to resort to parallel importing and compulsory licensing. Parallel importing
and compulsory licensing permit a country to either import generic versions
of patented drugs or manufacture them.
Even with discounts of up to 90%, the drugs being offered by the pharmaceutical companies will still be about 10 times more expensive than the cheapest generic alternatives.
'Moral equivalent of war'
AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, held in July, heard how the world
would need at least $60 billion to treat 12 million people at the current
prices of AIDS medication. The figure represents about one-fifth of the
annual US military budget, but it would bankrupt many developing nations.
were a nuclear war, we wouldn't worry about whether people had their trigger
mechanisms patented or not,' says Nils Daulaire, president of the Global
Health Council. 'This is, I hate to use the term, the moral equivalent
of war,' he says, referring to the AIDS crisis in Africa.
says the challenge goes way beyond cheaper medication. He says Africa
needs to build up ailing national health systems, and provide skilled
personnel to make sure the complicated drug regimens are administered
and monitored properly, which would cost additional billions.
if AIDS drugs were free, no more than 10 to 20% of Africans would benefit
as the health infrastructures do not exist to manage infections in each
individual,' he says.
African communities feel that humanitarian concerns far outweigh the rights
of patent holders and access to cheap medicines would give them the vital
Sophia Mukasa-Monico of The AIDS Support Organisation (TASO) of Uganda says while communities are driving the response to AIDS on the continent, they have limitations because 'we cannot access expensive drugs that mean the difference between life and death'. - IPS