- UN WIRE
An Independent News Briefing about the United Nations
Monday, 05 March, 2001 - http://www.unfoundation.orgHIV/AIDS: Landmark South Africa Case On Drug Policy BeginsA 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.
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