Each day, while pharmaceutical companies prosper, 8,500 people in the global South die of AIDS. Thanks to strict intellectual property laws that keep drug prices sky-high, only 7 percent of HIV-positive people in low to middle-income countries have access to antiretroviral medicine.
But last week, Brazil--already renown for having one of the most progressive AIDS policies in the world--took a bold stand against big pharma. On June 25th, health minister Humberto Costa announced that Brazil will break the patent of the antiretroviral drug Kaletra, which is manufactured by the US company Abbott Laboratories, unless the company dramatically reduces its prices. Brazil intends to make a generic version of the drug, which it says will cost barely half of the $2,630 per patient the country annually pays Abbott. In doing so, Brazil will be able to extend its free AIDS treatment program to tens of thousands more HIV-infected citizens.
Brazil maintains that its decision is completely legal under the WTO framework, which allows poor countries to break patents in cases of national health emergencies (Brazil will still have to pay a 3 percent royalty to Abbott). Costa hopes that Brazil's action will embolden other poor and disease-ridden countries--which have been bullied into submission by trade pressure from the United States and other powerful nations--to follow suit.
"Brazil's decision to put people with HIV and public health first, before protecting big pharma's monopolies…will decrease the price of that critical medicine not only in Brazil but also worldwide," says Asia Russell of Health GAP, an organization that advocates for affordable AIDS treatment.
As of last Friday, Brazil has given Abbott a final ten-day window to voluntarily lower prices before creating a generic version of Kaletra. Russell hopes that Brazil will stand firm: "Because generic competition continues to depress prices over time, a compulsory license [to produce the generic version] will help Brazil save more lives than relying on Abbott--a US drug company that recently increased the American price of one of its AIDS drugs 400 percent--with no justification."
You don't have to be a die-hard fair trade activist to agree that when corporate avarice comes before saving lives, enough is enough. To learn what you can do to be a part of the global fight for affordable AIDS treatment, click here .
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Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.