A prescription for scandal

March 21, 2001|By Mark Weisbrot

WASHINGTON -- The story of the decade, and perhaps the century, has finally made it to the front pages: millions of people who could be saved are dying of AIDS. The reason for their unnecessary, premature, and often agonizing deaths is becoming clear: it is pure, unadulterated greed.

This is a scandal of biblical proportions.

The $350 billion pharmaceutical industry -- one of the most profitable and powerful in the world -- has teamed up with its allies in the U.S. government to deny millions of people access to affordable, life-saving drugs.

In the United States, people who are infected with the HIV virus can now have their lives extended indefinitely through a combination of drugs known as AIDS cocktails.

The cost of these drugs is $10,000 to $15,000 a year per patient -- placing them far out of reach of the 36 million people in low-income countries, including 25 million in sub-Saharan Africa, who need them.

But the cost of producing these drugs is a tiny fraction of their price. An Indian generic drug manufacturer, Cipla, recently offered to provide the drugs to governments for $600 a year per patient and to non-governmental organizations for $350.

For millions of people these drugs would become affordable; in the poorer countries, where annual income per person is in this range, they would be affordable with relatively modest foreign aid from the richer countries.

In the face of growing political pressure and moral outrage, companies have begun to offer some of these drugs at discounts. Most recently, Bristol-Myers Squibb said it would price two AIDS drugs at less than $1 a day in African nations and would make the patent rights available for the drug Zerit in South Africa, allowing generic-drug firms there to produce it.

But there are a number of other problems with allowing private monopolies to determine the price and availability of these desperately needed medicines. The cost in human life could be very high if they decide to drag their feet, demand other concessions, change their prices, or otherwise abuse their God-like power over the lives of millions.

The companies counter with an economic argument: these drugs would not exist if not for the monopoly profits that finance research and development. But there are other ways to fund this research. In fact, many of most expensive new drugs were discovered with the help of public funds.

As a matter of law, U.S. patents do not automatically extend beyond our borders. But the drug companies and their allies in Washington have a formidable arsenal of weapons to force compliance from poor countries.

These include economic pressures, lawsuits, and the World Trade Organization. When South Africa -- where 4.2 million people are infected with the AIDS virus -- passed its Medicines Act in 1997 to make these drugs more cheaply available, Washington retaliated with trade sanctions, postponed aid and other economic threats.

Here is a simple reform consistent with basic humanitarian as well as economic principles: no enforcement of patents for essential medicines in low-income countries. This would allow for treatment of millions of people who would otherwise die.

The pharmaceutical companies do not appear ready to abandon their quest for worldwide monopolies over the drugs that they produce. But the public is becoming increasingly aware of their role, and it is hideously indefensible.

It may take more severe pressures --such as boycotts by consumers and investors of the offending companies -- before they get the message.

But sooner or later, they will have to let go.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

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