Rep. Lee urges $ 1 billion to fight global AIDS

More than 70 lawmakers have signed a letter to George W. Bush drafted by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) urging him to submit a request to Congress that an additional $1 billion to be contributed to the Global AIDS Fund. The letter was sent to the White House this week on the eve of the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference in Qatar Nov. 9-13, at which the struggle against the HIV/AIDS pandemic is expected to be debated.

Rep. Lee told a Capitol Hill news conference, “The global AIDS, TB and malaria pandemics are the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time ... As we fight terrorism, we must also fight disease. Each day, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria kills 17,000 people.”

She warned that by 2007, if current trends continue, 100 million people will have HIV/AIDS, “and by 2010, Africa will be home to over 40 million AIDS orphans.”

The Bush administration pledge of $200 million to the Global AIDS Fund, she said, “is a step in the right direction” but still falls far short of what is needed. She cited an estimate by U.N. General Sec. Kofi Annan “that it will take $7-10 billion annually to launch an effective response.” She added, “We have the knowledge and technology to prevent the spread of HIV. We have the necessary drugs ... It is clear that a more aggressive response by the United States is necessary.”

Mel Foote, spokesman for the Constituency for Africa echoed Lee’s concerns. “Something is out of kilter,” he told the World. “We lost 7,000 in the Sept. 11 attack, but that same day Africa lost 7,000 people to AIDS, and 7,000 the next day and the next. We have a long way to go to convince the American people that we have a global responsibility to fight this AIDS pandemic in Africa.”

Brazil, together with a coalition of 60 other third world nations and non-governmental organizations, is spearheading a struggle at the WTO meeting to push through a “Global Agreement” for a coordinated fight against HIV/AIDS. They are demanding that the WTO agree to waivers on Trade-Related Intellectual Property rights (TRIPS) to permit nations to combat the AIDS public health crisis by obtaining or producing generic brands of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs.

The Bush administration is fighting to preserve WTO rules on patent rights that maximize profits for the pharmaceutical monopolies. These profiteers have used their patents to keep ARV drugs priced beyond the reach of impoverished third world nations.

Brazil recently jolted the pharmaceutical monopolies by announcing that they will not be bound by these patents and will continue to produce and distribute ARV drugs free to Brazil’s 100,000 HIV/AIDS patients. Brazil’s program for combatting AIDS is recognized as a model public health approach to the crisis.

The worldwide movement has exerted so much pressure on the pharmaceutical giants that it has forced the cost of ARV drugs down to $350 a year from $10,000 a year. A major factor has been India’s production of generic versions of the 15 ARV drugs. However, even at $350 yearly – less than a dollar a day – the ARV therapy is beyond the reach of millions in Africa.

The Bush administration has seized on a report prepared by Harvard University’s Center for International Development which argues that poverty, not patents on ARV drugs, is the cause of the rampant AIDS epidemic. The Harvard outfit is headed by Jeffrey Sachs – the advocate of “shock therapy” in Poland and Russia to overcome socialism. In the case of AIDS, Sach’s “shock therapy” simply means the patients die.