Hostile AIDS activists target Gore over patents

by Karine Cunqueiro

New York, July 18 (IPS-GIN) -- AIDS activists have zeroed in on Vice President Al Gore, disrupting his presidential campaign with a series of protests over his support for U.S. policy on pharmaceutical patents.

The activists claim that the United States is depriving South African AIDS sufferers of lifesaving medications. They have vowed to continue protests that last month disrupted Gore's campaign stops in Tennessee, New Hampshire, California, and Philadelphia.

Demonstrations, organized by the advocacy group ACT-UP and the national coalition AIDS Drugs for Africa, have seen activists waving banners dubbing the Gore 2000 campaign "Apartheid 2000" and declaring that "Gore's Greed Kills."

At one point, demonstrators displayed a life-size marionette of Gore, the strings of which were manipulated by effigies of drug company executives.

The activists accuse Gore of putting the profits of U.S. drug firms above the plight of an estimated 3.2 million South Africans who have the contracted the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

As co-chair of the US-South Africa Binational Commission, Gore has threatened to impose trade sanctions against the African country unless its President, Thabo Mbeki, retreats from his insistence on the domestic production of patented AIDS drugs.

"Britain and the Netherlands get 8-10 percent of their drugs through parallel imports, but the United States is not threatening them with trade sanctions or interfering with their affairs," says Eric Sawyer, co-founder of ACT-UP New York and a member of AIDS Drugs for Africa.

"The U.S. is doing that only in South Africa, Thailand and India. Why? Is it because they're poor countries of people of colour?"

Multi-drug AIDS therapy - that costs upwards of 1,000 dollars a month - is out of the reach of nearly all South Africans where the average annual income is 2,600 dollars.

To make the drugs more affordable, South Africa passed a law in 1997 that would permit parallel importing - the practice of buying brand-name drugs from a third party in another country rather than directly from pharmaceutical companies, which sometimes charge lower prices in one country than another.

The law would also allow the government to issue licenses to domestic firms to manufacture generic equivalents of patented medications, a practice known as compulsory licensing.

The WTO agreement on intellectual property (TRIPS), allows compulsory licensing aimed at combating public health emergencies, and has no position on parallel imports. But drugmakers, strongly oppose both practices, which they regard as forms of theft. The international pharmaceutical industry quickly challenged the South African law in the South Africa High Court and won injunction while lobbying the U.S. government to oppose the law from being enacted.

The office of the U.S. Trade Representative then denied South Africa tariff breaks on exports to the United States - worth more than 3 billion dollars in 1998 - and placed it on its "watch list" for unfair trade practices.

A State Department report in February described how six U.S. government agencies were engaged in an "assiduous, concerted campaign" to persuade South Africa to repeal the law. According to the report, Gore was in the forefront of the campaign, making the matter of "pharmaceutical patents in particular a central focus of his discussions with President Mbeki."

AIDS activists accuse Gore of allowing his trade policy to be influenced by substantial campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry and by his ties to many of its top lobbyists.

Anthony Podesta, a close friend and advisor to Gore, is contracted by PhRMA, an industry lobby, and the U.S. company Genentech. David Beier, chief domestic policy advisor to Gore, was previously the Vice President of Government Affairs at Genentech; and in 1998, Gore's head fund-raiser, Peter Knight, made $120,000 lobbying for the U.S. corporation Schering-Plough.

The Clinton-Gore administration has charged South Africa with violating WTO regulations. The accusation has drawn sharp criticism from AIDS activists and consumer and health groups who not only deem it false, but hypocritical and selective as well.

The United States meanwhile has issued compulsory licenses for satellite technology, music, and television programming and, moreover, parallel importing is routinely practised in several European nations, none of which have been censured, say activists.

"Less than one percent of AIDS drugs are sold in sub-Saharan Africa as it is," says Michael Engelke, a University of Michigan economics professor.

"The patent owner's losses to generic drug manufacturers in that region will be negligible. The problem is that losses will occur if a 'gray market' or 'parallel market' springs up - drugs are bought in Africa at cut-rate prices and resold in European markets, rather than bought at European prices directly from the companies.

"The South African law also would set a precedent that could lead to weakening of intellectual property laws in more lucrative markets, which could translate into more losses," he says.

"These are very real threats, particularly in light of technological advances," adds Engelke. "The European Commission, for example, said recently that it wants to expand international electronic trade in pharmaceutical products."

Drugmakers further argue that lower-priced medicine will not magically curb Africa's AIDS epidemic.

"The compulsory licensing approach assumes that all you have to do is hand people some pills," says Tom Bombelles, assistant vice-president of PhRMA. "There are many barriers to better medical care in these countries." Developing countries, he says, lack the necessary infrastructure to monitor patients and properly administer medication.

The controversy over compulsory licensing is unlikely to abate anytime soon.

A recent UN study reports that AIDS has reached pandemic proportions in several sub-Saharan countries. Botswana's life expectancy has dropped to 47 from 61 years, and in Zimbabwe, where morgue hours have been extended nationwide to cope with a soaring AIDS-related death rate, infection rates are running at 20 percent.

In South Africa, it is estimated that 20% of pregnant women have HIV/AIDS and that 100,000 children were orphaned by the virus in 1998 alone.

Faced with such grim statistics, health-advocacy organizations have seized upon compulsory licensing as a way to widen access to medical technologies.

Without U.S. policy reform, the groups argue that people in the very countries in which AIDS has taken its greatest toll will have to wait 20 years, when patents expire, before they receive new treatments; far too late for populations the UN has predicted could be slashed by as much as 20% by AIDS over the next decade.

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).