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South Africa: Drug Companies Drop AIDS Suit

by Ravi NessmanAssociated Press
April 19th, 2001

PRETORIA, South Africa -- In a move activists hoped would lead to a flood of affordable AIDS medication to Africa, the pharmaceutical industry dropped its suit Thursday challenging a South African law many say would allow the government to import or produce generic versions of the drugs.

However, the government said it had no plans to buy generic drugs and implied a widespread program to provide AIDS medication for the 4.7 million South Africans infected with HIV remained a long way off.

Activists packing the courtroom in Pretoria exploded in cheers and song when lawyers for the more than three dozen major pharmaceutical companies suing South Africa withdrew their lawsuit.

''There is no doubt that they have received a black eye,'' Mark Heywood of the group Treatment Action Campaign said of the companies, which include giants Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb and GlaxoSmithKline. ''And I think it will embolden people in developing countries around the world to stand up for medicines that are affordable.''

South Africa agreed to consult the industry when it draws up regulations for the 1997 law and reiterated its long-stated promise not to breach international trade agreements, according to a joint statement issued by both sides.

The agreement was praised around the world by groups including the World Health Organization (news - web sites), Medicins Sans Frontieres, the World Trade Organization (news - web sites) and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations.

''Instead of debating the issue with each other in court and in the media, we can now work together to provide better health care to the citizens of South Africa,'' said Harvey Bale, director general of the federation.

When hearings began on the case six weeks ago, the pharmaceutical companies came under intense international pressure to back down and watched their reputations battered amid criticism they were putting profits above the lives of the nearly 26 million people infected with HIV in Africa. In response, many of the companies that make AIDS medication offered them to developing countries at or below cost.

The law that had been in dispute said in part that the health minister ''may prescribe conditions for the supply of more affordable medicines in certain circumstances so as to protect the health of the public.''

AIDS activists and some legal experts say this would allow the government to begin importing or producing cheap copies of patented AIDS medication.

''This will make them do something ... the government will go buy the drugs,'' said Thembane Shabanqu, a 24-year-old woman infected with HIV, who is unable to afford the $25 a day needed for medication.

The government said the law was never intended to deal with generic drugs - the country's current patent laws govern those - and it told the drug companies it will only use the law to import the companies' own drugs that they are selling for lower prices abroad.

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang implied the end of the case did not mean the government planned to begin providing costly antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients, saying it did not have the necessary infrastructure and also had some concerns about the medicines.

Activists acknowledged their battle for affordable AIDS medication had just begun.

''We have won the first round, but there is a lot ahead that we have to do,'' said Zackie Achmat, head of the Treatment Action Campaign. ''We need a much firmer commitment and political commitment from our government.''

The South African law, which will not take effect for at least several weeks, would allow private health insurance companies to begin importing patented AIDS drugs from countries where they are sold cheaper, putting the medications within reach of a broader group of South Africans, said Ayanda Ntsaluba, director-general of the health department.

John Kearney, general manager of the South African arm of GlaxoSmithKline, said that at a cost of $4 a day for private patients and dlrs 2 a day for public patients, South Africa was already receiving close to the world's lowest prices for its widely used AIDS medication Combivir.

Even at those prices, the drugs will remain out of reach of most of the world's poor, unless there is an international effort to improve infrastructure and to help poor governments buy the medicine, he said.

''I feel genuine sadness for those who perhaps believed that the pricing of antiretrovirals was the only barrier (to treatment) and that that barrier would come down as a result of this court case,'' said Kearney who had been vilified by protesters throughout the legal battle. ''If people's hopes have been raised prematurely by that then that's a great shame.''





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