Gore Wants Anti-HIV Drug Prices to Rise
Gore to South Africans: Drop Dead
Last week in Atlanta, Vice President Al Gore dropped one of his big-think speeches, this one praising the work of faith-based social service outfits and calling for Washington to fund religious-oriented charities that assist the needy. This was, in part, a response to the values-first pitch of Bill Bradley, the former Democratic Senator from New Jersey who is discomfitting Gore in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.by David Corn
The speech was also an occasion for Gore -- a stick-figure politician to many voters -- to trumpet his spiritual side. "Without values of conscience, our political life degenerates," he said. The Vice President hailed the "hunger for goodness" among Americans, and declared, "A politics of community can be strengthened when we are not afraid to make connections between spirituality and politics."
Let's hope Gore's speech was not broadcast in South Africa. There, millions of poor people infected with the HIV virus would have had good reason to choke if they heard Gore express these noble sentiments, for the spirit-filled Veep has helped pharmaceutical companies deny South Africans easier access to anti-AIDS drugs.
Last year, in South Africa--where one-quarter of pregnant mothers in some areas are HIV-positive--President Nelson Mandela signed into a law a measure that would allow South African firms to manufacture low-cost generic versions of the high-price AIDS-busting drugs produced and sold by major Western drug companies. Under international trade rules, a country can engage in such "compulsory licensing" to combat a national emergency.
With 22.5 million people living with AIDS in sub-Sahara Africa, the emergency seems real enough. The law also would permit the country to buy drugs when they are found to be cheaper in other nations and import them to South Africa--a practice called parallel importing. (Drug manufacturers often sell their products at different prices in different nations, with the cost varying as much as by a factor of ten.)
Not surprisingly, the transnational drug companies were not keen on this legislation. They fear their profits will be undermined by a gray market of low-cost AIDs drugs, each of which can run $10,000 a year. (Average annual income in South Africa: $2600.) The drugmakers scurried to try to block the law in South African courts. In the United States, they turned to the Clinton-Gore Administration for help. The White House obliged, threatening South Africa with sanctions if it does not yield. The drug industry found a friend in Gore, who, as chairman of the United States/South Africa Binational Commission, has leaned on the South Africans to repeal the medicines law.
The Administration has been quite forceful in this campaign. On April 30, the US Trade Representative placed South Africa on its "watch list" for unfair trade practices, citing Pretoria for its attempt to abrogate patent rights. One of the charges in the USTR's report was that South African "representatives have led a faction of nations in the World Health Organization (WHO) in calling for a reduction in the level of protection provided for pharmaceuticals."
Since when, in the face of a global public health crisis, is speaking out at international organizations for affordable drugs an "unfair trade practice"? It's telling that the Administration has not sought to pursue its complaint before the World Trade Organization, where a trade gripe of this sort ought to be registered. Presumably, this is because the Administration's case is not strong enough to win a favorable WTO ruling. Instead, the Clinton-Gore gang has chosen to exert political pressure. It's posible that the drug manufacturers have a legal argument, and not just greed, on their side. But if that were the case, Gore should let the appropriate international tribunals resolve the matter rather than act as an enforcer for the industry.
On April 8, consumer advocate Ralph Nader and James Love, who runs the Nader-founded Consumer Project on Technology, wrote to Gore, accusing him of having "engaged in an astonishing array of bullying tactics to prevent South Africa from implementing policies, legal under the rules of the WTO, that are designed to expand access to HIV/AIDS drugs." The two noted that several European nations maintain extensive trade in parallel imports of pharmaceutical drugs and that the United States itself has issued compulsory licenses on pharmaceutical products. "It is gross hypocrisy," they said, "to act as if South Africa is an outlaw in the world community because it is considering the use of compulsory licensing for essential medicines....Africa is confronted with a public health crisis of historical proportions. Of course South Africa should use compulsory licensing to expand access to essential medicines....Why should President Nelson Mandela, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki and Dr. Nkosazana Zuma [the Health Minister] permit their population to be defenseless simply because Glaxo Welcome and Bristol-Myers Squibb want the power to set prices for US taxpayer funded and government developed HIV/AIDS drugs in Africa?" The United States, they added, "is literally asking South Africa to abandon the lives of millions of infected citizens in order to receive reductions in US barriers to trade or economic aid." They called for the Administration to consult with public health groups regarding this controversy.
Gore, as of last week, had not written back. He may have been too busy hungering for goodness.
David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation magazine and a columnist for the New York Press, where this article first appeared. He is the author of the forthcoming novel Deep Background.
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