Mar 5, 2001
A trial is just beginning in South Africa. The big pharmaceutical companies that make drugs to retard AIDS want to strike down a South African law that allows other companies to import and to make generic medicines. Some 4.2 million South Africans have AIDS and will die soon without the medicines that could keep them alive for many years. The drug companies say the South African law that allows imports of generic drugs from countries like India and Brazil and that allows South African manufacturers to make generic versions violates their patent rights.
A year ago the big drug companies said they were going to allow South Africa and other big companies to buy their anti-AIDS drugs cheaply. This, of course, is nonsense. Even if they cut the price by 80%, the cost is well beyond what the stricken people could afford. But the big drug companies didn't even follow through on this pledge.
The companies involved are the biggest and richest of the pharmaceutical companies: among the most profitable of all business in the U.S., more so even than the oil companies. Merck had 6.8 billion dollars in profits after taxes in 2000, and a rate of profit on stockholders' investment of 50.5% (the average of the 900 biggest companies was 15.8%). Bristol-Myers Squibb was not very far behind, with 4 billion dollars in profits after taxes and a rate of profit of 44.7%.
The price of these super profits will be millions of deaths from AIDS in South Africa, elsewhere in Africa and also in the U.S., where those without insurance can't afford the drugs. These drug companies know full well they aren't going to be selling their anti-AIDS drugs in South Africa, but they are going to fight the case in court, which is expected to last until the end of the year. They will defend what they call their "intellectual property rights," even if it means millions will die. This is capitalism at work.