Keep taking our tablets (no one else's)
The WTO's response to Africa's AIDS crisis is a chilling reminder of where power lies in the global economy.
to have originated in the Office of the United States Trade Representative
in Geneva (which does not deny the document's authenticity). The official
missive threatens Argentina for opening its borders to the drugs trade
- not the fun stuff, but sales of legal, licensed medicines. If Argentina
does not end its commitment to free cross-border trade in pharmaceuticals,
said the Trade Rep, America would keep the nation on the Section 301 Watch
List - a kind of Death Row for trading partners.
read the gospels of globalisation apostles Paul Krugman or Thomas Friedman,
you could get the impression that the World Trade Organisation is all
about ending tariffs and trade barriers. Only in your dreams.
real world, the WTO is the mechanism for privatising the tariff system.
Once, countries protected their workers and local industry behind taxes
at national borders. In the New World Trade Order, global corporations
may demand levies against nations that sell or buy products outside the
zones they have marked out by brand names and market segments. The WTO's
penal system for prohibited importing and exporting goes under the psychedelic
title TRIPS (for Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights).
Argentina and Africa - it all fits together. The story begins with this
un-fun fact: one in four people in black Africa is going to die of AIDS
unless medicine arrives now. Luckily, Brazil, India and, most aggressively,
Argentina, can make the drugs dirt-cheap and ship them to the dying. But
US, British and Swiss pharmaceuticals giants howled out loud about the
The US trade cops, led by Vice-President Al Gore, backed Big Pharma and halted the life-saving plan - Nelson Mandela's pleas, Nobel Prize and flowered shirts notwithstanding.
for Gore the presidential candidate, his let-them-eat-aspirin policies
resulted in his every campaign stop attracting packs of enraged homosexuals
who hollered about his killing more Africans than Michael Caine in 'Zulu'.
This did not make for good TV for Al. So his good buddy President Bill
found a few billion to quell the restless natives.
the billions come with strings attached or, more accurately, chains and
manacles. South Africa must buy 100% of the medicine from the USA and
pay back all the cash at 'commercial interest rates'.
Trade Rep's billet-doux to Argentina is the supply side of this scheme
to stop South Africa breaking the de facto embargo on free trade in pharmaceuticals.
South Africa hoped to use a loophole in TRIPS that permits the import
of patent drugs in extreme emergencies, even without the patent-holder's
the US retaliated against South Africa by taxing some of its imports to
the US - until the anti-Gore demos. The Trade Rep document suggests that
the Clinton Administration will re-aim the sanctions missiles at Argentina,
thereby avoiding the impolitic Mandela imagery while cutting off South
Africa's supply at source. After an expected WTO show trial, Argentina's
economy will be hung from a pole in Geneva as an example for India and
Brazil, other potential exporters.
I'm not being fair. After all, TRIPS seeks to protect and compensate manufacturers
for their risky investments and inventiveness in creating medicines such
as AZT, Glaxo-Wellcome's anti-AIDS drug.
Glaxo was inventive alright, but not in discovering AZT. A Professor Jerome Horowitz synthesised the drug in 1964, under a grant from the US government's National Institutes of Health (NIH). A Glaxo unit bought the formula to use on pet cats.
Obstinacy, inventiveness and 'heart'
an NIH lab discovered the HIV virus. The government lab urgently asked
drug-makers to send samples of every anti-retrovirus drug on their shelves.
NIH spent millions inventing a method to test these compounds. When the
tests showed AZT killed the virus, the government asked Glaxo, as the
compound's owner, to conduct lab tests.
refused. You can't blame it. HIV could contaminate labs, even kill researchers.
So NIH's Dr Hiroaki Mitsuya, combining brilliance, bravery and loads of
public cash, performed the difficult proofs on live virus. In February
1985, NIH told Glaxo the good news and asked the company to conduct human
refused again. Here's where Glaxo got inventive. Within days of the notice,
the company filed a patent in Britain for its 'discovery'. Glaxo failed
to mention the US government work.
has a heart. The Anglo-American behemoth announced it would sell South
Africa an AZT-based drug for only $2 a day per patient, more than 75%
off the price charged in America and Europe. I called Glaxo USA to say
thanks but, after a few questions, it became clear that the $2 price merely
matched the Brazilian/Argentine prices.
about that. If $2 is the free-market price, Europeans and Americans pay
400% over the odds, price discrimination explicitly protected by TRIPS.
the funny thing about the WTO's expansion of so-called intellectual property
rights. It is sold in the West on the slick line that those people, the
dark, unindustrious tribes of the southern hemisphere, are trying to steal
says expert Jamie Love of the Consumer Project on Technology in Washington,
patients in the West have as much to lose as Africans under the new regime
of thought ownership.
came to Love graphically when Maude Jones, a 30-year-old London woman,
called him begging help to obtain Taxol. The drug could have controlled
her breast cancer, but her NHS region did not prescribe it because of
its stratospheric cost.
Squibb takes no chances with its cancer monopoly. Taxol comes from the
yew tree. While Western drug companies have long argued that rainforest
trees and plants are theirs for the taking without paying royalties, Bristol-Myers
Squibb obtained from Congress the exclusive right to harvest yew trees
on US government lands, about the only place it grows on the planet. For
these public assets the company paid nothing.
Jones paid. Ultimately, the company was shamed into offering her the medicine
for free, if she moved to America. However, doctors concluded the offer
was probably too late. As her family already faced bankruptcy, Maude (not
her real name) phoned Love to say she had chosen to die.
From her death, Love hoped South Africans, Americans and Europeans would discover 'a helpful solidarity'. In AIDS and breast cancer, the stricken North and South share a horrific commonality as the new landless peasantry in the apartheid of intellectual property rights.
Palast is an investigative reporter and columnist with The Observer newspaper