AIDS pandemic: Pharmaceutical giants obstruct progress

AS 15,000 delegates attended the International Aids Conference in Barcelona, the United Nations estimates that 68 million people could die of the Aids disease by 2020.

BOTH AIDS and infection with the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) which causes it are spreading faster than predicted. 40 million people already have Aids, the most serious outbreak of illness in human history. Three million died from it last year.

The disease is more widespread than had been thought in the worst hit countries – particularly sub-Saharan Africa (in Botswana, for example, it is predicted that a baby born in 2010 would have a life expectancy of only 27 years) and spreading into new populations in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.

A new UN report says Aids could kill up to 70 million people if the world’s richest nations don’t more than triple the money they spend to curb the epidemic.

The UN calculates that the poor countries most at risk would need to spend up to $10 billion to tackle HIV/Aids. So far only about a third of that had been forthcoming from countries plagued by ‘debts’, drought, famine, warfare and other problems.

Aids agencies have given advice on how to stop the disease spreading. But the main obstacle to tackling HIV/Aids is capitalism, particularly the activities of profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies.

Only 1% of new pharmaceutical treatments developed over the last quarter of a century were for diseases normally found in poorer nations. But drugs are available to ameliorate the lot of HIV/Aids sufferers – they were developed because there was a market in the West.

Painful death

These drugs though are expensive to buy as the world’s top pharmaceutical companies make huge profits out of them. And while millions face a painful death, the drug firms protect this right with laws forbidding cheap ‘generic’ substitutes.

When Brazil used a loophole in these laws allowing cheaper alternatives ("in a national emergency") to produce and distribute its own anti-AIDS drug at 75% below prices in Europe, it cut Aids-related deaths by 40% in five years.

Last year the world’s top drugs firms tried to stop that happening again by suing South Africa’s ANC government over cheap generic Aids drugs which it bought or made.

The drugs giants said South Africa was violating intellectual property rights. They were really worried that if poorer countries could get cheaper drugs, it could push down profits in their biggest markets – North America, Japan and Europe.

The South African government won a victory over the drug companies after the courts asked the drugs firms to explain why their prices were so high.

After this court case, the cost of a three-drug cocktail went down from $1,500 a year to $300, raising hopes that poor countries could now afford them. But, says medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres, the drugs are still too dear, they want the cost to go down to $50 a year.

The UN aids body had set up a scheme to supply discounted drugs to countries in Africa. So far it has only enabled 22,000 extra people in eleven countries to get drugs, which are still too expensive and discounts are only available for a limited number of drugs.

Emergency action is needed to halt the spread of HIV/Aids. That must include fighting to take the whole pharmaceutical industry worldwide into public ownership, under the democratic control of the working class and service-users.

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July 2002