Since the start of the epidemic, an estimated 34 million Africans have been infected with HIV/AIDS - a number nearly equivalent to the size of our own country's African-American population. Some 11.5 million of these people have died, a quarter of them children.
There are medicines that could prolong the lives of Africans, but they are available only to a small minority - these pharmaceuticals are reserved for the rich and the developed world. "Triple therapy," the combination of antiretroviral drugs that has cut AIDS mortality by 60 percent in the West, is virtually unaffordable in Africa.
Bernard Lemoine, director-general of France's pharmaceutical industry association, is not particularly sympathetic to the voices calling on his industry to aid the pandemic's victims. "I don't see why special effort should be demanded from the pharmaceutical industry. Nobody asks Renault to give cars to people who haven't got one," said Lemoine.
Five pharmaceutical companies announced in May that they will drastically reduce the price they charge for AIDS drugs used in developing countries. It's a positive step, if they follow through, but the industry has much to make up for. In 1998, more than 40 pharmaceutical companies operating in South Africa and the country's pharmaceutical manufacturers association filed a legal challenge to block the manufacture of cheaper generic drugs. According to James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, "For decades, the U.S. government has advanced the interests of large pharmaceutical companies in its trade policy...[and] the commercial interests of companies like Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, [and] Pfizer."
Under emergency circumstances, international trade agreements permit "compulsory licensing," which allows countries to produce cheaper, generic versions of patented drugs, as well as "parallel importing," which allows countries to shop around for the lower-cost drug in the international marketplace. Major pharmaceutical companies, like those that hold the patents on drugs such as AZT, have opposed such practices. The U.S. government has historically sided with the pharmaceutical companies.
THERE IS, HOWEVER, a low-cost measure that would assist the poor. This measure is a place where the faith community could provide an immeasurable assistance and advocacy for the impoverished and voiceless.
The U.S. government spends billions of dollars each year to fund health care research. This taxpayer-funded research has created thousands of patents and other types of intellectual property on health-care inventions. Under U.S. law, our government could give poor countries - or international organizations such as the World Health Organization - the right to use patents funded by the taxpayers to produce low-cost drugs for use in countries facing health-care emergencies.
The U.S. government has very broad rights for inventions that are made by its employees, and for inventions made by private parties when they were funded by a government grant or contract. Under every contract and grant, the federal government could require that WHO be allowed to use these inventions to produce affordable drugs in poor countries.
Last year, public health groups asked the Clinton administration to enter into such an agreement with WHO or UNAIDS and to modify all NIH grant and contract agreements to reserve rights in patents for use in developing countries. The administration refused on the grounds that this would undercut the profits of the drug companies that commercialize these inventions.
MARSHA COLEMAN-ADEBAYO is chair of the International African AIDS Network (DCAIDSGROUP@hotmail.com).