- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2001

JOHANNESBURG Nearly every major pharmaceutical company in the world is suing the government of South Africa in a case viewed as a landmark in the battle to get cheap AIDS medication to many of the world's poorest countries.
The more than three dozen companies argue that a 1997 South African law allowing the government to import or produce cheap, generic versions of patented drugs is too broad and unfairly targets drug manufacturers. They plan to ask the Pretoria High Court to invalidate the law in hearings beginning today.
The government, AIDS activists and international human rights groups say the drug companies are trying to wring profits out of a public health nightmare that threatens to devastate South Africa and dozens of other impoverished countries.
The case is about whether "the commercial interests of the companies or the human rights of the people who are trying to stay alive" is more important, said Belinda Coote, regional director of the relief agency Oxfam.
More than 25 million of the 36 million people infected with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the world's most impoverished regions. Last year, 2.4 million people in the region died from the effects of AIDS.
These statistics, coupled with a perception that some drug companies care more about stopping the spread of generic drugs than the spread of HIV, have damaged the industry's standing.
"I don't think it's good for their image, and I think that a lot of them will just eventually give these drugs away," said Henry Grabowski, professor of economics at Duke University.
But access to AIDS medication has proved an embarrassing issue for the government and the United States as well.
Under former President Nelson Mandela, South Africa was criticized for spending millions of dollars of its precious health budget on a controversial AIDS awareness play and developing its own AIDS medication, Virodene, which was found to contain an industrial solvent.
The new government has yet to make a relatively inexpensive course of anti-retroviral medication widely available to pregnant woman to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
When South Africa passed a law in 1997 giving the health minister a limited right to import generic versions of patented drugs or license their domestic production, the U.S. government put South Africa on a watch list for trade sanctions.
After AIDS activists repeatedly embarrassed Vice President Al Gore with the issue at the start of his presidential campaign, the government reversed itself, agreeing to support South Africa as long as the law was applied consistently with international trade regulations.
The law has never been applied, however, because of the lawsuit.
The case is not about "patents versus patients" and has little to do with AIDS, said Mirryena Deeb, head of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association of South Africa, which is part of the lawsuit.
Under the law, the health minister would have the authority to essentially invalidate the patents of any medicine, she said, destroying the companies' profits and their efforts to recoup their costs for developing the drugs.
"This fight is about broad powers, arbitrary powers and a law that we still don't know what it means," Mr. Deeb said.

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