US and British government representatives will make decisions this week which will kill poor people as surely as they are doing in Afghanistan. The key votes will come at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar. This is a meeting designed to defend and extend the multinationals' stranglehold on production and trade.
The US, Britain and others now want to bulldoze through the business agenda that was blocked at the WTO in Seattle two years ago. That meeting was cut short by protests and internal disagreements between the European Union countries, the US and leaders of Third World countries. The Western governments preside over the debt system which kills 19,000 children a day.
They bomb the children and peasants of Afghanistan and want to pump more money from the 1.2 billion people who live on less than $1 a day to the multinationals. As part of that process, Tony Blair and George W Bush have instructed their delegations to derail moves to get cheaper life-saving drugs to countries ravaged by diseases such as AIDS.
On 11 September, as on every day, 7,000 people died in sub-Saharan Africa from AIDS. The slaughter could be cut substantially by making free medicines available. But the profits of the big pharmaceutical companies have always come first. WTO rules back this devastation.
The agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) grants multinationals at least 20-year global patent protection on new drugs. That means they can keep prices artificially high. In the run-up to the Qatar meeting senior trade officials from Britain and Germany have deliberately blocked proposals which would give poor countries the right to import cheaper drugs to protect public health.
British representatives also vetoed the introduction of a temporary exemption from penalties for poor countries which break WTO drugs regulations. Kevin Watkins, Oxfam's senior policy campaigner, says, 'At the Labour Party conference Tony Blair said it was up to the prosperous countries to create a framework to remove poverty from Africa. But what Britain is doing with regards to TRIPs is a crime. Reforming TRIPs is the biggest single issue the developed world could do to alleviate poverty.'
The only case where patents have been entirely overthrown is when ten cases of anthrax were discovered in the US. Then the US government pressured the patent holder, Bayer, to allow anti-anthrax drug Cipro to be copied and produced cheaply.
The US pharmaceutical industry has a turnover of £140 billion a year. It maintains its influence through a web of contacts and handouts. If the most powerful figures at the WTO have their way, the callous profiteering of the drugs companies is soon to become worse.
At the moment, according to Oxfam, every day 37,000 people die worldwide from preventable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. A terrifying report last month forecast that within a decade 780,000 people a year would be dying from AIDS in South Africa alone. At Qatar Britain and the US have shown they are not 'making war and bringing humanitarian change at the same time'. They are just killing poor people by different methods.
Patents are there to protect profit
Pfizer (motto: 'Life is our life's work') is the world's biggest pharmaceutical company. It grabbed profits of $13 billion last year. That money comes overwhelmingly from medicines sold in the US, Canada and Europe. To defend those profits it keeps prices high throughout the world. The company has, for example, vigorously maintained the patent protection for its anti-fungal drug Diflucan. This is vital for the treatment of meningitis in people with HIV.
Because of the patent laws Diflucan costs 30 times as much in Kenya as do generic substitutes. The result is tens of thousands of early deaths. As Kenya's Dr Mohammed Abdullah says, 'If HIV and AIDS continue unchecked it will be like exploding a neutron bomb in our country. There will be buildings, but no human beings.'
Pfizer has now agreed to donate Diflucan to Africa-because the patent is just about to run out. But it is not donating the improved version, Vfend.
No privatisation means no loans
The most powerful governments have used intense pressure to force poorer countries to follow their lead. The 'caring' British government has told the West African state of Ghana that it will not get a £100 million loan unless it pushes through water privatisation. This will mean higher prices for desperately poor people and more disease as people reuse water.
The British government has also been colluding with business in the run-up to Qatar. It met with International Financial Services, a business body which wants to push through more privatisation. Minutes of government committees, leaked last week, show the government is under pressure from campaigners.
The Department of Trade and Industry thought the case for further privatisation of services was 'vulnerable' when campaigners asked for 'proof of where the benefits lay' for poor nations. It decided to spend up to £70,000 in propaganda against organisations like the World Development Movement.