Regional Focus: Campaign Against High Cost of AIDS 'Cocktail'

Analysis by Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
March 12, 2001

WHILE THE campaign to determine next Monday which party controls a new government in Guyana, a campaign of a different nature but of much relevance to Guyanese HIV/AIDS

patients is gaining momentum in leading Third World nations.

The parties contesting the March 19 are understandably too preoccupied right now to pay serious attention. But it is to be assumed that the political and legal battles in Africa and this hemisphere to cut the high cost of drugs for HIV/AIDS patients, are being closely monitored by the Caribbean Community's Task Force on HIV/AIDS, and the more recently launched pan-Caribbean coalition to fight the dreaded killer disease.

"The Partnership", or coalition, as explained by Dr Eddie Green, Assistant Secretary General of CARICOM, "is designed to significantly scale up the response to HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean which is the worst affected region outside Africa...Nine of the 12 countries with the highest infection rates in this hemisphere are in the Caribbean Basin..."

With almost half a million people in the wider Caribbean reported to be inflicted with the AIDS virus, and with the region unenviably rated second only to sub-Saharan Africa in new AIDS cases, it is imperative that substantial reductions in the cost of drugs be speedily sought in the widening anti-AIDS fight.

In the war against HIV/AIDS, for which highly expensive drugs are being marketed by manufacturers of the rich nations, the Caribbean has no alternative but to stand with countries like South Africa, India, Brazil and Dominican Republic to force the powerful pharmaceutical corporations to cooperate in bringing down the cost of anti-AIDS treatment to realistic levels.

Accelerated access to cost-cutting drugs is an evident priority and nations in Africa, currently desperately grappling with the AIDS pandemic, seem to have lessons to offer for the Caribbean in the quest to obtain the drugs at far less cost for patients - an average of some US$1,500 monthly to treat a CARICOM victim of the virus.

Mobilising Support

Opportunities to press the case for significant reductions in the cost to treat HIV/AIDS patients will present themselves at two coming international fora.

First at next month's Third Summit of the Americas in Quebec, Canada, and then in June at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly which will focus on intensifying international action to fight the AIDS epidemic.

Faced with the horrors of over 21 million deaths from AIDS over the past 20 years, most of them in Africa, and at least 36 million people infected with the disease, the United Nations has organised the June 25-27 special session of the General Assembly to encourage much more focused

international action to battle the epidemic, including mobilising the resources required to wage an effective campaign.

Before then, leaders of all the nations of this hemisphere will gather for the Third Summit of the Americas, with the sole exception of Cuba - thanks to Washington's pressure politics. They will have the opportunity to talk directly with President George Bush about how American

corporations seem to be putting profits above the health of people.

Cuba has already come out in support of Brazil's trade dispute with the USA over its right to produce less expensive generic versions of the cocktail of anti-AIDS drugs, in the face of American corporations' challenge before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that Brazilian drug firms are violating intellectual property and patents rights. A similar legal battle is taking place in South Africa.

Who Pays?

In highlighting the horrors of the AIDS pandemic in Africa, 'Time' magazine last month discussed the question as to who should pick up the tab for the Third World - the hardest hit of this global problem.

It compared the cost of identical version of the anti-retroviral combination cocktail that sells for US$10,000 to US$15,000 a year in the USA to that of US$3,000 to US$5,000 in Brazil, and less than US$1,000 annually in India.

In South Africa, where some four million of its people have been infected by AIDS, a legal battle is being waged against the opposition from multinational pharmaceutical companies to the government's claimed right to import AIDS drugs from the cheapest possible sources - such as Brazil and India.

In India, the Bombay-based firm of Cipla Limited is offering anti-AIDS drugs at the "humanitarian" price of just US$1 per day to the world's poor nations - on the condition that they are distributed free of cost.

The Caribbean states need to move speedily in having accelerated access to cheap drugs, currently available to some African states, while closely monitoring the legal and political battles by Brazil and South Africa against the pharmaceutical manufacturers and exporters of the rich nations.