AIDS activists march against pharmaceutical companies

by Gumisai Mutume

Washington, 12 Mar 2001 (IPS) -- Hundreds of demonstrators protested outside the offices of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) Monday in solidarity with the South African government, which is currently facing a patent infringement lawsuit lodged by a group of drug companies.

Chanting slogans and waving huge puppet effigies of pharmaceutical executives and US government officials, the demonstrators demanded that the drug companies drop the lawsuit which seeks to block the implementation of a law that would permit the country to import or manufacture cheaper AIDS drugs.

“The pharmaceutical companies would like to call South Africa a criminal for extending access to cheap drugs to people with HIV, but we know who the real criminals are,” Asia Russell of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) told the demonstrators.

At that point, the protestors turned and pointed towards the PhRMA building chanting “Shame, shame, shame!” PhRMA is the representative body of the country’s leading pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

On 5 March, subsidiaries of about 40 major drug makers challenged a 1997 South African law that permits the health minister to shop around for the lowest-priced patented products around the world, under a practice termed parallel importing. The law also allows compulsory licensing, giving the minister powers to permit local companies to manufacture generic versions of patented drugs.

South Africa justifies this by saying it is in crisis, with 4.3 million of the country’s 40 million people said to be HIV-positive, making it one of the countries worst affected by the disease.

Citing breach of intellectual property rights, the drug companies filed a suit against the South African government seeking to halt the implementation of the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act in the Pretoria High Court. The case was briefly heard and is set to resume on 18 April.

But activists charge that in the meantime many South Africans continue to die of AIDS, which is estimated to be growing at a rate of more than 1,000 infections each day in the country.

The march on Monday is only further evidence that what started off three years ago as a case by the pharmaceutical companies against the South African government is increasingly taking on a global character.  The French-based, Doctors Without Borders, recently launched a global campaign known as the “Drop the Case Petition” enlisting individuals across the world to sign on and pressure drug companies to quit.

“We are here to tell the pharmaceutical industry that we will not stand by silently any longer,” Rachel Cohen of Doctors Without Borders told demonstrators in Washington.

The British charity, Oxfam, has also started a campaign to push GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the world’s largest drugs company, to lead the way in providing affordable and effective medicines.

“Murdered by GlaxoSmithKline”, read one of the banners, while another said “Pharmaceutical greed kills, stop drug lawsuit now.”

The pharmaceutical companies are increasingly being portrayed as profit-hungry businesses turning a blind eye to the plight of millions of people in developing countries.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 24 million of the 35 million people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Many countries there are among the world’s poorest; with per capita incomes averaging $500, AIDS drugs are beyond the reach of many.

The cost of annual treatment with the triple-therapy cocktail of anti-retroviral drugs that has proven effective in controlling the development of HIV into AIDS in western countries is between $10,000-$15,000 per person in the United States. Drug companies have generally been unwilling to give major price-breaks to poorer nations.

It was only last year in May that five major pharmaceutical companies - Glaxo Wellcome, Merck, Boehringer Ingelheim, F. Hoffmann-La Roche and Bristol Myers Squibb - began offering discounted prices to African nations. But some of these discounts are reported to be as high as 90% of the US price.

The offers also came with numerous conditions limiting the amount of drugs the African countries would get. For instance, under the programme, only about 1,000 people in Senegal will get access to the medication. Except for Rwanda, Uganda and Senegal, countries on the continent have ignored the offer.

Salih Booker, an Africa analyst, described the position drug firms have taken on South Africa as a new form of global apartheid. They remain unmoved by the disease’s progress through Africa, the Caribbean islands and black communities in the United States. “Right now, the AIDS epidemic is killing black people and that is why the world has been slow to act, that’s why the pharmaceutical companies do not care,” says Booker.

But Indian drug manufacturers have moved to assist Africa, with the recent offer by Cipla to sell generic versions of the triple-therapy anti-retroviral drugs to non-governmental organisations for $350 per person per year.

A second Indian manufacturer, Hetero Drugs, has also just announced that it is willing to sell generics of the triple-therapy drugs to South Africa for $347, if the country wins its lawsuit against the big drug firms.

In turn, the drug companies have also announced major drug price cuts.  Merck and Company has slashed the prices of two of its important AIDS-fighting drugs in Africa by a further 40% and 50% of the price offered in May. A number of other drug firms have lowered their prices, with some even undercutting the prices of generics.

Mark Grayson of PhRMA says further drug price cuts could be expected and dismissed the demonstrations as a waste of energy.

“It is disappointing that all this energy is going into a protest that will not end up delivering the cheap drugs to poor people in Africa,” says Grayson. “It will not change much whoever wins the South African lawsuit because even at the discounted prices many developing countries cannot afford the drugs. More energy should be spent ensuring that ways to pay for the drugs and to deliver them are found.”

But activists regard the South African case as a watershed which may determine the ability of many developing countries to acquire and produce cheap anti-AIDS drugs.