AIDS Drugs For Africa

"Gore's Greed Kills" is the chant that has been dogging the Vice President since June, as demonstrators from ACT UP and the Health GAP Coalition have called attention to the way the Clinton/Gore Administration has been using political and economic blackmail to keep Third World countries from manufacturing or importing cheap, generic versions of patented AIDS fighting drugs, many of which were developed with US taxpayer funded research.

As co chairman of the US South Aftican Binational Commission since 1997, Gore's been the point man for the Administration's policy Until the demos began, Gore personally pummeled South Africa by threatening trade sanctions if it did not abrogate its 1997 Medicines Act. That law authorized Pretoria to use two mechanisms to get AIDS drugs to those who so desperately need them: parallel importing (enabling importers to buy the drugs from the cheapest source available worldwide) and compulsory licensing (enabling local companies to make the drugs at a fraction of their cost to US consumers), both legal under the World Trade Organization's agreements on intellectual property.

The urgent need for a change in US policy is fueled by cold, hard numbers: Some 23 million people in Africa are already infected with HIV, and UNICEF says that AIDS has replaced armed conflict as the number one killer in sub Saharan Africa, taking 1.4 million lives in 1998. In South Africa, one in five is HIV infected, as are 40 percent of the young men in the country's armed forces.

As the New York Times noted in an unusually strong August 23 editorial, "The desires of America's pharmaceutical companies have been the overwhelming force driving American policy on the issue of drugs in poor nations." The drug monopolies' puissant lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), in fact has been virtually dictating Administration actions, and in Gore who's boasted he'll raise at least $55 million for his 2000 campaign they've found a pliant tool. In his search for drug company campaign fands, Gore is surrounded by a phalanx of pharmaceutical company fixers. Anthony Podesta, one of his top advisers and close friends whose brother, John, is White House Chief of Staff is a key PhRMA lobbyist, whose firm was paid $160,000 to lobby on patent issues for them between January 1997 and June 1998 and raked in another $260,000 in the same period from Genentech, the biotech behemoth that gave some $230,000 to the Clinton/Gore Democrats between 1991 and 1998. Former Congressman Tom Downey, Gore's "First Friend" since their days in Congress together, is a lobbyist for Merck. Peter Knight, the 1996 Clinton/Gore campaign manager and Gore's chief fundraiser, is a lobbyist for Schering Plough, another deep pocketed drug company. And Gore's chief domestic policy adviser, David Beier, was formerly the chief in house lobbyist for Genentech.

The demos reaped a harvest of publicity that has forced the Administration to have its first ever meetings with health activists on the issue, provoked a Congressional hearing on AIDS drugs for Africa in July and sent Gore into a tizzy trying to make the protests go away. That's easy. Under the Bayh/Dole Act of 1980, the Feds retain licensing rights for a raft of AIDS drugs developed with government money and could with a stroke of a penmake generic versions available to developing nations tomorrow without Congressional approval or any further cost. But the Administration has refused. To save his faltering campaign from further harassment, Gore may engineer a deal with South Africa timed to coincide with President Thabo Mbeki's scheduled September 22 visit here. But there is enormous concern among world health activists that any compromise would be limited to AIDS drugs and to South Africa alone. And PhRMA is lobbying furiously against any fundamental change in US policy.

What Washington should do is follow the World Health Organization resolution passed earlier this year, which urged that where essential medicines are involved, public health concerns should have priority over commercial pressures. That means the United States should not interfere in developing countries' efforts to use compulsory licensing or parallel importing to gain access to vital drugs, period. Furthermore, the United States should enter into an agreement with the WHO giving it the right to make those patent

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