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    UN WIRE An Independent News Briefing about the United Nations ... Monday, 05 March, 2001 - http://www.unfoundation.org HIV/AIDS: Landmark South Africa Case On
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 5, 2001
      UN WIRE
      An Independent News Briefing about the United Nations
      Monday, 05 March, 2001 - http://www.unfoundation.org

      HIV/AIDS: Landmark South Africa Case On Drug Policy Begins
                      A landmark lawsuit launched by almost every major drug manufacturer in the
                 world against the South African government began today in Pretoria but adjourned
                 shortly after it started due to repeated power failures (Johannesburg Mail &
                 Guardian, 5 Mar).
                      More than 40 drug companies are asking the Pretoria High Court to invalidate a
                 South African law allowing the government to import or produce less costly generic
                 versions of patented drugs, a challenge that has significant ramifications for the
                 country's population of HIV/AIDS patients (Karen MacGregor, London
                 Independent, 5 Mar). South Africa has the world's largest population of
                 HIV-infected people, totaling 4.2 million (UN Wire, 27 June 2000).
                      Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres yesterday denounced the "callousness and
                 bullying" of the pharmaceutical giants in a joint statement and warned of worldwide
                 demonstrations against the move. They said many lives could be saved if people had
                 access to affordable medicines and accused the companies of defending their
                 patents without considering the value of human life.
                      "Five thousand sick South Africans will be alive at the beginning of the weeklong
                 hearing and dead by the end of it," said Oxfam's Phil Bloomer. "Twelve thousand
                 people will have become infected with the HIV virus during the same week, 1,400
                 of them babies."
                      The groups support 1997 South African legislation that allows the government to
                 provide public sector patients with cheaper drugs, chiefly by circumventing patents.
                 So far the country has not been able to use the laws because of legal challenges
                 from drug firms. Drug giants charge that circumventing patents disrupts research and
                 development of new medicines (MacGregor, London Independent, 5 Mar).
                      "We are not against patents, but it is absurd to apply the same rules and duration
                 of patent protection in poor countries as in rich ones," said Kevin Watkins, senior
                 policy adviser for Oxfam. "Governments have a clear obligation to put the health of
                 their citizens before the profit margins of patent holders" (Tim Butcher, London
                 Telegraph, 5 Mar).
                      Mirryena Deeb, head of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association
                 of South Africa, which is a party in the lawsuit, says the case has little to do with
                 AIDS and is not about "patents versus patients."
                      "This fight is about broad powers, arbitrary powers and a law that we still don't
                 know what it means," she said.
                      Under the law, the health minister would have authority to invalidate the patents
                 of any medicine, thereby ruining company profits and efforts to recoup their costs
                 for developing the drugs, she said (Associated Press/Times of India, 5 Mar).
                      Deeb added, "We believe quite firmly and we state quite categorically that what
                 has been absent and what holds back treatment to South Africans living with HIV is
                 a lack of political commitment" (John Murphy, Baltimore Sun, 5 Mar).
                      The South African government, however, says the industry is overreacting and
                 the health minister would invoke the law only in times of crisis, such as now. "The
                 intention of this act is simply to ensure that South Africa meets its constitutional
                 obligation to provide health care to all South Africans," said Ayanti Ntsaluba,
                 director general of South Africa's Health Ministry (AP/Times of India).
                      The government says it cannot afford the drugs the country urgently needs to
                 combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Health Minister Manto
                 Tshabalala-Msimang said she is confident the government will win the case (BBC
                 Online, 5 Mar). "We have to win," she said (Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, 5
                      Agence France-Presse reports that this court case could affect millions of AIDS
                 patients in developing nations (AFP/Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, 5 Mar). The
                 trial is scheduled to run through 13 March (Baltimore Sun).
                 WHO Supports South Africa's Drug Policy
      In a statement released Friday, the World Health Organization said it strongly
                 supports the 1996 South African National Drug Policy as well as "the intent of the
                 1997 Medicines Act 90, which is to operationalize key elements of the National
                 Drug Policy, including generic substitution, greater competition in public drug
                 procurement, improved drug quality and more rational use of medicines" (Integrated
                 Regional Information Networks, 2 Mar).
                 Protests Planned Worldwide
      Thousands of protesters marched to Pretoria's High Court today to show
                 support for the government (Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, 5 Mar). Marches
                 are also planned today in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston and San
                 Francisco in support of the government (Murphy, Baltimore Sun).
                      While AIDS experts have warned that there are more issues involved with the
                 HIV/AIDS pandemic than the price of drugs, the New York Times reports that the
                 concept of "profiteering pharmaceutical empires has captured the world's
                 imagination and left the drug industry playing defense" (Henri Cauvin, New York
                 Times, 5 Mar).
                      Click here to read a feature published yesterday in the Philadelphia Inquirer
                 about the battle over generic drugs.
                  (Back to Contents)
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