Drug Profiteers & Government Doom AIDS Victims

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By Barry Weisleder / September 2006 issue of Socialist Action

TORONTO—The International AIDS Conference, held here in August, was the largest ever, attracting some 26,000 participants. But many must have gone home disappointed.

Despite a headline-grabbing donation by Bill and Melinda Gates to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, and the release of promising trial results of the first microbicide, or vaginal gel, to stop HIV, the basic obstacle to the fight against HIV/AIDS in poor countries remains. On the surface, the obstacle appears to be a combination of bad laws and trade rules, but at bottom it is simply the profit system, capitalism.

Antiretroviral therapies exist, but the drugs are unaffordable to the millions of HIV/AIDS sufferers across Africa and most poor countries. Why? Because the patents are held by giant, name-brand firms—monopolies in the most profitable industry in the world. In 2004 the Access to Medicine Regime law was passed (originally called The Jean Chretien Pledge to Africa Act).

But after two years, according to the international charitable organization Doctors Without Borders, the new law, which was supposed to alleviate AIDS and other epidemics in Africa, has not produced a single pill.

The battle over patents and control is an expression of the conflict between health and profit. Which should prevail, the public interest or private property?

Under enormous consumer pressure, in 1969 the Pierre Trudeau Liberal federal government passed legislation to authorize “compulsory licensing”. Until then, it had been illegal to copy a prescription drug under patent.

Drug companies held 17-year monopoly patent protection to keep drug prices as high as possible. But under the compulsory licensing regime, qualified manufacturers, after paying a royalty, were permitted to copy patented drugs and sell them at lower prices. Prices fell and a new industry flourished.

Consumers were delighted, but the drug giants were outraged, and they fought back. Globalization came to their rescue. As secondary industry moved to low-wage countries, governments in the developed world focused more on so-called knowledge industries, whose profitability depends on ownership of ideas.

This new economy gained expression in the rules of the World Trade Organization. It required free trade in goods and capital, but it required monopolization (restricted trade) in what came to be known as intellectual property.

In 1993, Brian Mulroney’s Conservative federal government virtually eliminated Canada’s compulsory licensing scheme for drugs. And when Jean Chretien’s Liberals regained power later that year, they did not reinstate it.

So, it’s hardly surprising that Chretien’s Pledge to Africa law has proven worse than useless. It contains safeguards for the drug giants, to ensure that cheap generics are not diverted back to Canada. But the burden and complexity of the regulations has inhibited production and shipment, thus dooming millions of AIDS victims to unnecessary misery and an early death.

Will the International AIDS Conference 2006, and related ongoing campaigns, convince the federal Tories to amend the law? Will they enable Canada to become an important source of drugs for the developing world?

Federal Health Minister Tony Clement promised an immediate review of the legislation. But he hardly could have promised any less, especially as he tried to dodge the flak resulting from Prime Minister Harper’s refusal to attend the Conference, and Harper’s cancellation of a major funding announcement.

In any case, how likely is it that these capitalist vultures will bite the hands that feed them?

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