Fighting AIDS was supposed to show George W. Bush’s softer side. “Seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many,” he said in his State of the Union address this past January. He has since reconsidered, deciding instead to offer a few more opportunities to the few. First he handed the top job of his Global AIDS Initiative to a Big Pharma boss, then he broke his $3 billion promise of AIDS relief and now there are concerns that he may sabotage a plan to send cheap drugs to countries ravaged by AIDS.
This past August, the World Trade Organization announced a new deal on drug patents that was supposed to give poor countries facing health problems the right to import generic drugs. But the deal seemed unworkable: The United States, at the behest of the pharmaceutical lobby, had successfully pushed for so many conditions that the agreement exploded from a straightforward forty-nine words to a sprawling 3,200-word maze.
Countries wanting to import cheap generics must jump through multiple hoops to prove they are truly in need, unable to afford patented drugs and incapable of producing the medicines domestically. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that there will be a sufficient supply of drugs for them to buy, since the deal also puts up hurdles for countries wanting to export. “A ‘gift’ tightly bound in red tape,” declared a coalition of NGOs, including Médecins Sans Frontières and Third World Network.
Perhaps that’s why US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick praised the agreement. So did Harvey Bale, the premier spokesman for Big Pharma and director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations. Bale, who had lobbied against the deal, told Reuters that the latest neutering resulted in “a fairly balanced text” that “adds clarity.”
But now something unexpected is happening. The Canadian government, under intense pressure from AIDS activists and the United Nations, is trying to put the WTO agreement into practice. In September, the government announced plans to amend its patent law to allow the manufacture of generic versions of patented drugs exclusively for export to poor countries.
African AIDS groups have hailed the plan as a breakthrough, especially if it spurs more countries to suspend patent protections to export generic drugs to countries in need. And the need is huge. Of the roughly 30 million Africans with HIV, 4.1 million need antiretroviral drugs, yet only 50,000-75,000 have access to them. The World Health Organization has pledged to get 3 million people into treatment by 2005. That would require a minimum of 6 million pills a day, a demand that cannot be met by the current generic drug suppliers alone.
All of a sudden, Harvey Bale is not pleased. The agreement he praised when it was just a feel-good press release is now, according to Bale’s recent statements, a “dead end” and “window dressing,” resulting in a “negative black eye for Canada.”