- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2001

Africa is overwhelmed by the AIDS scourge. Of the 21.8 million deaths caused by HIV/AIDS since the virus beginnings, four-fifths have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. And news on April 19 that the international drug industry dropped a lawsuit against South Africa that aimed to prevent the country from importing patented drugs more cheaply has put Africas AIDS crisis into sharper focus. Surely, other health problems have caused the continent considerable problems. But no other epidemic has more glaringly exposed the shortfalls in Africas health infrastructure.

To put the proportions of the epidemic in perspective, consider that more people have died from AIDS over the past 20 years than from any other disease in human history, and more than 25 million Africans are infected. The cruel implication is that the virus is undermining the continent´s prospects for emerging from poverty. And that poverty, in turn, functions as a virtual catalyst for the epidemic by limiting the continent´s ability to contain it.

The question remains, however, what should be done? Some governments have done a courageous and laudable job of acknowledging and dealing effectively with their AIDS crisis. Uganda, for example, has succeeded in lowering infection rates from 14 percent in 1989 to 8 percent by 1997, mostly by employing a public-awareness campaign.

Still, the lawsuit against South Africa, where 4.7 million are infected with the disease, has generated considerable attention on the potential role of pharmaceutical companies. Drug companies have been trying to fight a new law, which would have allowed South Africa to import brand name drugs from other countries at a lower cost than would have been possible through a direct purchase from the manufacturer. The industry´s decision to drop the lawsuit has been hailed as a victory by many AIDS activists. But now, a sobering reality is setting in.

South Africa always had the option of importing cheaper, generic versions of AIDS drugs, but failed to do so. The government has also failed to launch a serious education or AIDS containment campaign. Although many activists have been calling for poor countries´ rights to break patents, effective solutions can be found by playing by the rules.

Just what do international rules entail? According to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, better known as Trips, countries have the option of applying for licenses to produce generic versions of patented drugs. One of the reasons this compulsory licensing hasn´t been widely exercised is because many developing countries know they can´t afford even generic versions of AIDS drugs. But another more sinister reason is that the Clinton administration, while professing to feel Africa´s pain, aggressively threatened to retaliate, sometimes with sanctions, against countries that sought compulsory licensing. Fortunately, this government-for-hire era appears to be over. The Bush administration said in February it won´t raise objections to compulsory licensing in poor countries.

The U.S. government could also start auctioning off its own research and development to the private sector. Currently, this publicly funded research is usually turned over free of charge to pharmaceutical companies. But, if sold, the proceeds from these auctions could, for example, be funneled back to a fund for AIDS in Africa or to AIDS research. Also, the length of patents may need to be reevaluated. After all, these are determined by bureaucrats not market forces.

Some drug companies have offered to provide African countries with drugs which prevent pregnant, HIV-positive women mothers from infecting their babies. Through tax credits and some government assistance, the private and public sector can play a crucial role in fighting the AIDS epidemic. The future of an entire continent of people is at stake.

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