WASHINGTON -- It is an unlikely first issue of the 2000 presidential campaign: the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, and whether Vice President Al Gore has helped block the production and importation of cheap, generic AIDS drugs to southern Africa.
But three jarring protests at Gore appearances last week have pushed the issue to the front of the vice president's consciousness, infuriating Gore's White House staff and raising the stakes when AIDS activists meet today with the White House AIDS czar.
The activists have pledged to disrupt Gore's campaign events until they win a shift in administration trade policy, which they say favors the powerful pharmaceutical industry over the life-and-death needs of Africa's poor. Protesters say Gore has led a White House drive to force South Africa to scuttle an effort that would bypass U.S. patent laws to provide life-saving medicine to many Africans dying of AIDS.
"Gore has been carrying out the dirty work of the pharmaceuticals companies," said Eric Sawyer, co-founder of the AIDS group ACT UP New York. "He's putting a higher priority on trade than public health."
But Gore aides -- and even some AIDS activists -- say the protesters have distorted the vice president's efforts to forge a compromise between protecting U.S. patent law and addressing an AIDS crisis in southern Africa. Susan Rice, the assistant secretary of state for Africa, asserted that Gore has "led the way" in opposing trade sanctions and other drastic actions pushed by the pharmaceutical industry.
"The root of what is wrong in AIDS care is drug pricing, but the vice president is not the culprit -- the drug companies are," said Daniel Zingale, executive director of the AIDS Action Council, the nation's largest lobby on AIDS issues. "Of all the people running for president, Gore seems like an unlikely one to target."
To many AIDS activists, the issue is simple: South Africa wants to lower the price of AIDS treatments, and Gore is trying to block those efforts. Three times last week, protesters disrupted his rallies with taunts and signs proclaiming, "Gore's Greed Kills." A rally is planned Monday in Philadelphia outside a hotel where Gore will be raising campaign cash.
"We're not going to go away until this administration changes its policy," Sawyer said.
Drug companies cry foul
In 1997, South Africa passed a law granting its health minister authority to let local pharmaceutical companies produce generic versions of AIDS drugs, despite U.S. patents on those drugs. With 3.2 million South Africans infected with HIV, and the price of AIDS drugs out of reach for most of them, the government called its actions necessary and legal.
But U.S. and European drug companies cried foul. They rushed to Congress and the U.S. trade representative for help, and to court in South Africa to try to block the law. Industry executives won an injunction.
With the cost of drug development soaring to up to $500 million for one new medication, patent rights have become critical to companies' survival, industry officials say.
"Patent protection is vitally important to this industry," said Jeff Trewhitt, a spokesman for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or Pharma, the industry's lobbying arm.
At the industry's behest, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican, slipped language into last year's budget law requiring the State Department to report to Congress on its efforts to suspend or repeal the South African law. In the meantime, no U.S. foreign aid could be released to South Africa's government.
The State Department came back with a report in February that is now haunting Gore. The report said the nation was "making use of the full panoply of leverage in our arsenal," including the vice president, to gut the South African law. Gore had made the issue "a central focus" of his meeting with then-South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki in August, the report stated. Gore met with Mbeki in February and again brought up the issue. To the AIDS activists, this document was the smoking gun.
"Since Gore is the orchestrator of this whole policy, we plan to continue," said Asia Russell, a member of ACT UP Philadelphia. "We're going to escalate until these policies change."
Wrong about role, aides say
But Gore aides say the activists are wrong about his role. Leon S. Fuerth, the vice president's national security adviser, who attended both meetings with the future South African president,said Gore offered to discuss an import agreement to let South Africa shop for the best price for AIDS drugs worldwide and then import them in bulk. The offer "would likely be controversial with the drug companies," Fuerth said, but Gore favored "a mutually acceptable solution."
And Gore aides said AIDS activists are bending other facts. In an open letter to Gore, for instance, activists asserted that he had authorized the U.S. trade representative to conduct "a sweeping new review of South Africa policies" on April 30.