South Africa, Pharmaceutical Companies Reach Agreement on “Cheap” AIDS Drugs

With great fanfare pharmaceutical companies and the South African government announced earlier this month that the drug companies were dropping a lawsuit against South Africa’s proposal for cheap AIDS drugs. This was celebrated as a great victory, though it is highly questionable whether the agreement will have any effect on the AIDS epidemic in South Africa.

In 1997 South Africa enacted a law that would have given the government the ability to authorize generic versions of patented AIDS drugs to be sold in South Africa. Numerous pharamceutical companies joined together to sue the government, arguing that it lacked the authority to do so under the South African Constitution as well as various international treaties on intellectual property.

For thtree years the drug companies manged to keep the law suspended while they fought it in court, but the move turned out to be a public relations nightmare. People accused the pharmaceutical companies of putting their own profits before people’s lives (forgetting, of course, the immense amoun tof money needed to research and produce anti-AIDS drugs).

But the upshot of the whole fiasco and the recent settlement is that it was largely a pointless exercise in public relations by both sides. After all, the government of South Africa has yet to decide if it will actually invoke the law. Even without the associated patent costs, anti-AIDS drugs are probably still too expensive simply to manufacture and distribute, especially given South Africa’s poorly developed medical infrasturcture.

There is ample precednet for this. As Dr. Harvey Bail, director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Assocation, notes, India doesn’t recognize patents for drug compounds at all — there is nothing stopping manufacture of any medicine patented anywhere else in the world. And yet even with diseases that are serious problems in India, such as tuberculosis, only enough drugs are produced to treat about 15 percent of people infected with the disease.

Systemic poverty is still the single biggest health care obstacle in the developing world, and looks to remain so for the forseeable future.


Head-to-head: Aids drugs. The BBC, April 19, 2001.

Cheaper drugs a long way off. The BBC, April 19, 2001.

Joy at SA Aids drugs victory. The BBC, April 19, 2001.

Aids court battle: Joint statement. The BBC, April 19, 2001.

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