British NGOs support Pretoria against pharmaceutical firms

by Samanta Sen

London, 16 Apr 2001 (IPS) - This could almost be the test of Nelson Mandela’s second revolution. It was a bold move by his government to legalise cheap alternatives to life-saving medicines.

As the world’s top pharmaceutical companies go to court in South Africa to battle his decision to provide cheap medicines, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from all over the world over have joined battle as friends of the court to fight on South Africa’s side.

Mandela led his government in 1997 to pass the Medicines Act that makes generic drugs cheaply available for life-threatening diseases like AIDS. That Act is being challenged by 39 pharmaceutical companies in a case on which court hearings begin on 18 April.

As in the fight against apartheid, groups in Britain are rising to support the South African government against what some see as drug apartheid. Once again, London is seeing street protests on Mandela’s behalf, this time against the drug multinationals. This time also, the Internet has become a platform for protest.  While hundreds, led by a group of African drummers, came out onto the streets to protest on 5 March, hundreds of thousands have signed a petition launched on the Internet against the drug companies.

The petition, led by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), asks people to support South Africa’s efforts to make essential medicines more accessible to its people. The petition asking the 39 companies to drop their case ran until 15 April ahead of the court case.

The petition says: “With over four million already infected with HIV, South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world. Very few can afford the treatment that has extended and improved the lives of people in richer countries... Since 1998, the pharmaceutical industry has blocked the legislation, claiming it would infringe their patent rights. During the period,  400,000 South Africans have died of AIDS-related causes. High prices are effectively denying medicines to poor patients, condemning them to a premature death,”

The petition calls on the 39 pharmaceutical companies to withdraw immediately and unconditionally from the case. “And we call on governments to support the people of South Africa by also urging the companies to drop their case,” it says. The 39 companies include Bayer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Glaxo Wellcome, Hoechst Marion Roussel Limited, Merck, Roche and SmithKline Beecham.

Ellen ‘t Hoen, co-ordinator of the Globalisation Project for MSF’s Access to Essential Medicines Campaign, says: “This case has struck a chord with people around the world because it exposes the lengths that the industry will go to protect its patents and profits, despite the immense human cost. There have been demonstrations from Pretoria to New York, from Copenhagen to Manila, demanding access to life-saving medicines for South Africa.”

The case opened in the Pretoria High Court on 5 March. The pharmaceutical industry had sought to postpone the case for an additional four months. Instead, the judge granted them three weeks to present data justifying their high prices.

Their data and arguments to counter it by the Treatment Action Campaign have now been handed in to the court.

The London-based Action for South Africa (ACTSA) led several street protests in Britain when the case came up in court on 5 March. It led a march from South Africa House on Trafalgar Square to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry in Whitehall. The protest was backed by many other groups, including the leading British charity Oxfam, the National AIDS Trust and Unison. Protests were also staged at the Glaxo SmithKline plant in Crawley near London, and at several places in Birmingham and Manchester.

The protest groups are planning to do more this time around, and will have a chance to do it in the court itself. “The judge ruled that we can be friends of the court,” Aditi Sharma, spokesperson for ACTSA.

With a degree of participation in the court procedures, NGOs in London and at other centres have armed themselves with facts and logic to contest the pharmaceutical companies in their own right.

ACTSA is campaigning for the British government to back all poor countries that use these tools to make essential medicines more affordable.

Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Gordon Brown has said he wants to set up a global fund to buy drugs to treat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. He has promised pharmaceutical companies tax benefits to make drugs available more cheaply. But he stopped short of opposing the move of the companies in the court.

Minister for Trade Richard Caborn earlier opposed the calls for Britain to support Southern African governments’ right to import or make cheaper versions of big-company-patented drugs. These measures are “not the answer here”, Caborn said, adding that their use “would undermine the willingness of the pharmaceutical industry to play a constructive role”.

Caborn’s views were reflected in a report by a group of British legislators. A report by the House of Commons International Development Select Committee at the end of March drew strong condemnation by ACTSA and other groups.

“The report seems to endorse a ‘global health apartheid’ by saying that drug treatments that have cut AIDS deaths by two-thirds in Britain were ‘clearly not a practical or sustainable development intervention’ for the 25.3 million Africans with the disease,” said Ben Jackson, Director of ACTSA.

ACTSA is demanding that the British government issue a strong statement encouraging Southern Africa’s right to use parallel importing and compulsory licensing to widen access to vital medicines, that it cease from imposing bilateral pressure on countries trying to use such policy tools and that it prioritise the battle against AIDS in Africa over the interests of the British pharmaceutical industry.

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