South Africa: Drug Companies Drop AIDS Suit

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

''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.''

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
  • 116 Human Rights
  • 122 Pharmaceuticals
* indicates required