JOHANNESBURG, March 7 (Reuters) - An angry face-off over
patents between the world's biggest drug firms and the South
African government has turned attention back to the desperate
plight of the millions of Africans with AIDS.
Thirty-nine of the largest pharmaceutical firms began a court
challenge this week against legislation that would allow
Pretoria to import generic AIDS drugs at a fraction of the
price charged by the major drug makers.
The case has been delayed to allow activists, who say the
pharmaceutical industry is growing fat on the fruits of human
misery, to present evidence of the terrible cost of AIDS and to
allow the drug firms to prepare an answer to that testimony.
Drug companies say their patent rights are protected under the
South African constitution and a vital source of funds for
future research. They say firms have already offered cut-price
AIDS drugs to African governments.
What is not in dispute is that in Africa, the poorest continent
where most people earn less than the cheapest dollar-a-day cost
of HIV treatment, HIV-AIDS threatens most cruelly to destroy
the social fabric.
The United Nations estimates that 25.3 million people are
living with HIV-AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and that close to
2.5 million Africans died of the disease last year.
The landmark case in the Pretoria high court was postponed on
Tuesday to April 18 to allow testimony by the leading AIDS
activist group, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).
TAC and government lawyers are expected to give moving
testimony on how drug pricing policies have deprived people
suffering from AIDS of a chance of living longer.
Stakes in the case have risen since Kenya announced on Tuesday
it was introducing legislation to import generic AIDS drugs --
exactly the domino effect the drug companies fear if South
Africa gets the go-ahead to import cheaper generics.
Drug companies have been acutely aware of the potential damage
if public opinion blames them for failing to help to fight
Hundreds of thousands of HIV-positive orphans are the tragic
legacy of a disease that will curb population growth, destroy
prospects for economic growth and even threaten food security.
U.S. drug maker Merck and Co Inc on Wednesday said it was
slashing the price of two key AIDS drugs in developing
Behind staggering statistics are endless cases of abject human
misery and grinding poverty where few suffers can afford
blankets, let alone drugs to deal with the disease.
From Botswana to Zimbabwe and Kenya, AIDS has unleashed the
biggest health crisis Africa has seen in modern times.
LEGACY OF ORPHANS
At 35.8 percent, Botswana's is the highest HIV prevalence rate
in the world, reducing life expectancy to 44 years from 69 and
expected to leave one in five children orphaned by 2010.
African governments have been slow to move against the disease
and few if any can afford to deal with what threatens to emerge
as an AIDS pandemic over the next ten years.
Meanwhile, hospitals across the continent are beyond breaking
point, their rickety beds packed with victims living final
tragic days ostracised and beyond the help of drugs.
South Africa, with the continent's most advanced economy, has
been unable to deal with what is now developing from an HIV
epidemic to a full-blown AIDS crisis.
"The flood is coming. The number of people falling ill and
dying is increasing dramatically. Two years ago, that was not
the case," said Alan Whiteside, an AIDS authority from the
University of Natal in Durban.
Whiteside, who works in the most badly affected province of
KwaZulu-Natal, warns South Africa is now experiencing a major
upturn in AIDS deaths after HIV spread like wildfire over the
last 10 to 15 years. HIV rates in the province are 33 percent.
Official estimates put the number of South Africans with HIV at
4.2 million, or one-tenth of its people. This compares to an
infection rate of around 0.6 percent in the United States.
"It's quite frightening. We're now getting increasing numbers
of mothers from the townships who are HIV-positive," said
Colleen Jacob, manager of home-based care at South African Red
Jacob's patients are nursed on the floor in shacks outside Cape
Town made of wood and metal. The fortunate ones get blankets
and a food parcel that will last up to five days.
The Pretoria judge's decision to admit the aids activists'
testimony has been welcomed by aid groups because the drug
companies will have to respond in detail to each of the TAC's
arguments on patent abuse and pricing policies.
Aid groups say this is an unprecedented opportunity to
understand how drug firms price their drugs.
"It's going to open up a Pandora's box. For the first time the
drug firms have a responsibility to open their books," said
Matthew Grainger with the British charity Oxfam.
"It's going to open up the issue of who actually funded the
initial research into AIDS drugs, which was done with public
funding, to the economics of the industry," he said.
The TAC has already identified and campaigned against four
firms it says earned excessive profits from patented AIDS
They are Pfizer's fluconazole drug, Bristol Myers Squibb's ddI
and d4T, GlaxoSmithKline's ABC, 3TC and AZT and Boehringer
Ingleheim's nevirapine treatment.
Medecins sans Frontieres has estimated that if South Africa
were to import generic versions of Pfizer's fluconazole from
Thailand, the cost of treating 10,000 patients would fall to
$2.1 million a year from $34.8 million.