World AIDS Day: I care. Do you?

Each year a theme is chosen for World AIDS Day Dec. 1. This year’s theme was “I care. Do you?” It has been a prophetic theme, because this year those who “care” won some important victories over those who don’t. Activists and third world nations united and struggled mightily to defeat a multinational conspiracy of for-profit pharmaceutical industries.

In April, 39 multinational drug manufacturers dropped their three-year-old suit against the South African government. The legal case centered on a 1997 law that gives the South African health minister discretion to license other companies to produce drugs patented by the major pharmaceutical firms. This would have allowed the country to produce and distribute drugs to fight HIV at a much lower cost, but it would have challenged the pricing monopoly of the $300 billion pharmaceutical industry.

Industry representatives argued that their position was one of legal principal, and that it was unfairly characterized as refusing to allow access to cheaper generic versions of the drugs. But the technicalities of their argument were drowned out as the South African case became the centerpiece of a worldwide struggle against the profit-mongering conspiracy of the multinational pharmaceutical corporations.

Thoroughly battered, the companies settled even before the court case began. Under the terms, the companies also agreed to pay all government court costs. The settlement followed a victorious international struggle against the companies, which were accused of putting profit above the lives of an estimated 4.7 million South Africans infected with HIV/AIDS.

In an attempt to improve their brutal public image, during the struggle several of the companies drastically lowered prices for their HIV drugs in sub-Saharan Africa, where 25 million of the world’s 36 million HIV-infected people live. No one was fooled by this ploy. If the people’s health is left to the “good will” of the corporations, prices will be raised just as fast as they were lowered.

Another victory was won in November when, at the latest round of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks, the agreement reached stated that intellectual property rights rules “[do] not and should not prevent member states from protecting public health.’“

Referring to this victory, Daniel Berman, of Doctors Without Borders, said, “Now patent holders either offer prices that make their drugs accessible or risk losing their monopoly rights.’’

However, the WTO statement is a compromise between the legally binding language that developing countries had been lobbying for and the wording favored by the U.S. and other Western nations.

The current wording of the agreement still seriously limits exports placed on drugs produced under the “compulsory licensing’’ clause. Compulsory licensing involves a government giving a manufacturer a license to produce a drug for which another company holds a patent, in exchange for the payment of a reasonable royalty to the patent holder. The effect is to introduce generic competition and drive prices down. The poorest countries do not have the capacity to produce drugs themselves, and should be able to import cheap generics from other nations that have invoked the emergency measures.

The struggle will continue. Non-governmental organizations and activist nations are gearing up for the next series of battles against the rapacious pharmaceutical giants so that next year’s World AIDS Day will be marked by more victories.