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HEALTH-LATAM: AIDS Threatens Industrial Property in Form of
Mario Osava
November 10, 2000
RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 10 (IPS) - Not only does AIDS endanger millions of human lives, it is also threatening a core institution of capitalism, the private ownership of knowledge in the form of patents, at least in the pharmaceutical sector.

Brazil, a country of 168 million, said it would refuse to recognise the intellectual property rights of giant drug companies that did not reduce the prices of the anti-retroviral medications used in the combination drug therapies employed to fight the AIDS- causing Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

To do that, Brazil has passed legislation providing for "compulsory licensing," permitting the manufacturing and use of generic drugs without the agreement of the patent-holder, in cases of "national emergency".

Brazil already produces seven of the 12 drugs used in the anti- HIV cocktail treatment. That has allowed the government to lower the cost of treating an AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) patient by 40 percent, to 4,500 dollars a year.

The pharmaceutical giants' insistence on maintaining a large profit margin at the expense of people suffering from life- threatening illnesses justifies the use of compulsory licensing, according to Paulo Teixeira, coordinator of Brazil's National AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases Programme.

Neighbouring Argentina has also adopted that mechanism, while it has stiffened anti-trust legislation and the rules aimed at preventing abuses by patent holders and promoting competition in the pharmaceutical industry, said Roberto Lugones, a biochemist who heads the National Medications Commission.

Compulsory licensing has cut the Brazilian government's total spending on medications by 16 percent, while the prices of some drugs, like stavudine, plunged by as much as 96 percent, Lugones stated Friday in a panel held at the First Forum and Second Latin America and Caribbean Horizontal Technical Cooperation Conference on HIV/AIDS and STDS (Forum 2000).

One of the strategies Brazil has followed is to produce drugs that are not patented in this country, the prices of which were pulled down by an average of 72 percent, said Eloan Pinheiro, technical director of Farmanguinhos, a state-owned Brazilian laboratory that has played a key role in the local manufacturing of anti-retroviral medications.

In the case of products with protected patents, the drop in prices was only nine percent.

Compulsory licensing, the Health Ministry's power to regulate prices, and negotiations for waiving patents at a low cost are other strategies used by the Brazilian government to offer anti- retroviral treatment to all people infected with HIV, said Pinheiro.

Pedro Chequer, coordinator of Southern Cone actions in the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), pointed out earlier this week in Forum 2000 that Brazil had saved 421 million dollars in the past three years, by cutting HIV-related hospital admissions.

Treatment with combination anti-retroviral therapies also led to 51 million dollars in savings in treatment of opportunistic infections, while it has led to additional productive years gained by HIV-carriers, companies and the country as a whole, he added.

The United States has filed complaints against Argentina and Brazil in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) over compulsory licensing.

A Nov 5-6 'Community Forum' organised by people living with HIV and a number of organisations working in prevention and treatment approved a declaration calling on the United States to withdraw its complaints, and urging it not to meddle in the Dominican Republic's drafting of a new patent law.

"Economic power does not provide the right to kill," although that is precisely what is occurring in many parts of the world, and especially Africa, stated the declaration.

Pinheiro, a chemist who worked for 17 years in the multinational pharmaceutical industry, advocated "rules that ensure universal access to the new drugs, and shared industrial property," in order to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Monopolising information in these cases is "sheer cruelty; it amounts to letting people die of AIDS and other serious illnesses, just to earn a little bit more," she argued.

Pinheiro proposed that Latin America and the Caribbean negotiate together to strengthen their position vis-�-vis patent- holders, and that they create a fund for what is known as "pooled procurement" of anti-retroviral drugs at lower prices.

She said Brazil could serve as a model for other developing countries, which could join together and produce generic medications in association.

Brazil is the only developing country which manufactures anti- retroviral drugs in the public sector and does not plan to become an exporter, said Teixeira. The aim of the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso is simply to make cheap, high-quality drugs widely available, he added.

Brazil has also decided to transfer the technology it has developed to other developing countries, and has begun to donate small quantities of the drugs it produces to the Bahamas and Burkina Faso.

Pinheiro lamented that her laboratory, Farmanguinhos, could only dedicate 10 percent of its manufacturing capacity to anti-HIV medications, because the country has a number of other serious health problems to deal with, like malaria, tuberculosis and diabetes.

At Forum 2000, which has drawn some 3,000 health authorities and other experts to Rio de Janeiro Monday through Saturday, representatives of around 60 companies from Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay announced the creation of a Mercosur Business Council for AIDS, to promote joint preventive actions.

HIV prevention will be adopted as a permanent issue on the Mercosur (Southern Common Market -- also comprised of Uruguay) agenda at the bloc's summit in December, said Chequer.

The Business Council's aim is to combat the scourge in key areas like borders and highways, and to step up prevention within companies and among the families of employees and clients, explained Chequer.

One of the actions, to be launched in January, will be a prevention campaign on the border where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay come together, where a heavy flow of tourists attracted by the Iguaz� falls and cheap shopping in Paraguay's Ciudad del Este, and the flow of drugs and migrants are all factors that fuel prostitution.

The "Proyecto Iguaz�" will consist of educational efforts targetting police, tourist agents, people working in the hotel industry, taxi and truck drivers and prostitutes.

The incidence of HIV is not high in the Southern Cone region, where 0.69 percent of the population is infected in Argentina, 0.57 percent in Brazil, 0.33 percent in Uruguay and 0.11 percent in Paraguay. However, prevention is essential, Chequer underlined.

Other projects will be developed along Argentina's borders with Brazil and Chile where cross-border flows of people are heaviest, with financing from the national governments and international agencies.