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World Aids Day: Warning: Drug Giants Can Seriously Damage Your Health
WORLD AIDS Day (1 December) marks two decades since the first AIDS cases were reported. 22 million people have since died from AIDS-related illnesses. 36 million are estimated to be living with the HIV virus that causes AIDS.
In South Africa, a quarter of secondary school students and a fifth of primary school children are HIV-positive and 1,800 teachers died from AIDS-related conditions last year.
Thirty-nine of the world's richest pharmaceutical companies took legal action against South Africa this year to try to block legislation which would let the authorities obtain medication without paying the full market rates charged by the multinationals.
These 39 firms own patents for the key drugs which can stop the virus spreading in an infected person (e.g. 'combination therapy') or stop HIV being transmitted from a virus-carrying mother to her unborn child.
But buying these drugs at full market rate prices for even a minority of their HIV-positive citizens would consume the national health budgets of most Third World countries.
States such as Thailand and Brazil looked into cheaper alternatives including purchasing from 'generic' (non-brand name) manufacturers at cut-down rates, or creating non-profit companies to produce equivalent products at a fraction of the market cost.
The US government exerted colossal pressure on countries which refused to deal directly with patent holders. Thailand abandoned a cheap drugs initiative when threatened with a US trade blockade.
In April the 39 drugs monopolies dropped their action after it became a public relations catastrophe for them. But this victory has yet to touch the lives of most HIV-positive South Africans. President Thabo Mbeki still denies that HIV causes AIDS and has told his health officials to spend less on the pandemic.
Some pharmaceutical firms tried to improve their tarnished image (and avert independent production of alternatives) by cutting prices on certain lines. But even at the new price these drugs remain beyond the pocket of most health ministries.
Life and death choice
THE RICHER capitalist countries use the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to impose their goods and services on poorer countries while preserving their own tariff barriers against potential Third World imports such as food.
But even the WTO's TRIPS agreement (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) provided for emergencies where a member state can grant itself a manufacturing license irrespective of the patent-holder's attitude.
Western states, though, refuse to acknowledge these provisions, although it was the US government which threatened during the recent anthrax scare to break the patent of anti-anthrax drugs-producing monopoly Bayer until it slashed the price.
However the last-minute agreement on drugs rules at November's WTO meeting in Doha appears to represent a victory for the poorer states. The WTO ignored US objections, declaring that TRIPS "should not prevent members from taking measures to protect public health".
If the Doha decision bears fruit, it will mean the difference between life and death for millions with HIV and AIDS across the neo-colonial world. It potentially extends the scope for poorer countries to ignore patents long-term.
But this issue will come back before the 2002 WTO meeting. New Scientist reports that "rich industrialised countries are already gearing up to limit its impact".
A leaked European Commission document shows that Western states will try to limit the Doha agreement to the very poorest countries, block a government's emergency public health measures if the patent holder has offered "favourable prices" and forbid makers of generic drugs exporting to more than one country.
Socialists support any initiative which extends vital treatment for HIV/AIDS and other diseases to the masses of every country. But the working class and poor people internationally need to take over these multinationals as the only permanent remedy to drug overpricing and other problems caused by imperialist domination of the globe.
In The Socialist 30 November 2001: