The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

AIDS and the defense of pharmaceutical patents

Jul 28, 2003

On Sunday July 13, the second conference on AIDS organized by the International Aids Society took place in Paris with some 5000 researchers in attendance.

This conference focused on AIDS in the poor countries. It is not the first time this subject has been addressed. But conference after conference, the situation that everyone calls unacceptable never improves because the means are not devoted to deal with it.

The development of AIDS in the poor countries is directly tied to the growing inequalities. Out of 40 million people with the disease, some 30 million are found in Africa. There are 8000 victims each day.

In Zambia, this disease has stuck 20% of the population. In Botswana, 39% of the adult population had the disease by the end of 2001, an increase from 36% just two years earlier.

Life expectancy is in a free fall downwards: According to studies published by the United Nations (UNOAIDS) it has declined in South Africa from 60 years at the beginning of the 1990s to only 48 years of age for the period 2000-2005. In Botswana, it was higher than 60 years in the 1980s, but has dropped below 40 years today.

The financing that was announced, already notoriously insufficient, has yet to arrive. The World Fund hopes, if its promises are kept (and the payments promised by the various countries arrive), the number of sick people treated in Africa will climb from the 30,000 of today to over six times the figure in the next six years. This is a really feeble goal, given there are already 30 million people with the disease.

Marie-Jose Mbuzenakamwe of the national association of support for sero-positive and AIDS victims in Burundi stated after this conference, " Today, the global fund is nearly bankrupt. Only 1.24 billion dollars has been paid out by the eight richest countries in the world, while the annual needs of the Fund are estimated at 10 billion dollars." He added, "To practice medicine does not just consist of treating the sick, but also out of necessity, to decide who will live and who will die, because we have only 30 treatments for every 120 patients."

During his recent trip to Africa, George Bush promised 15 billion dollars for the fight against AIDS (3 billion a year until 2008), but this promise, which has a number of conditions attached to it, is just one among a number of others already made, but not fulfilled. In 2001, the United Nations created a world fund for the fight against AIDS, which was supposed to raise 10 billion dollars. Only a few hundred million dollars were raised.

Since 1996, a treatment has been known: The sick do not have to die, the illness of the mother is no longer transmitted to the fetus. But these treatments are only available for the rich in the rich countries.

Countries like Brazil and South Africa developed the means to fabricate generic medicines that allowed the ill to have access to anti-HIV drugs. The American companies that held patents at that time began lawsuits against these governments. And more recently, in South Africa, George Bush defended the pharmaceutical companies and their rights to protect their "intellectual property."

The AIDS epidemic is a human tragedy. Everyone says so and are worried by the fact that this disease does not stop at the borders of the poor countries.

All well-intentioned people know that the means exist – if not to eliminate the epidemic – at least to considerably limit its effects. Yet this evil continues to develop simply because there are property rights – patents – that protect the profits of the large companies. Too bad if part of humanity must suffer or a continent like Africa must see a vast part of its population disappear.

Generally, the private appropriation of the means of production is a scandal, an attack against humanity. The scandal is even more glaring when patent rights directly lead to the deaths of millions of women and men.