Multinational pharmaceutical companies are going to court to stop South Africans receiving cheaper AIDS treatment. It is the starkest form of profit being put before people's lives. Around 25 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have the HIV virus which leads to AIDS.
Just 25,000 of these people, one in every 1,000, will receive any effective drug therapy. The rest cannot afford treatment and are sentenced to death. The drug companies are now using the law to maintain this slaughter.
At present, for example, the Biozole drug which forms part of anti-AIDS treatment costs £9 per tablet in South Africa. In Thailand, where a copy is made locally, it costs 15p a tablet. On 5 March the world's biggest drug firms will go to court to stop the South African government making their own cheaper copies of drugs that could save millions of lives.
The patent rights to these drugs are held by pharmaceutical giants such as Pfizer, Glaxo Wellcome, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, and Hoffman La Roche. They made profits of £20 billion between them last year. They are backed by governments including Britain and the US, as well as the World Bank.
The drug companies will use the World Trade Organisation's Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) regulations to push their case. These protect firms' patent rights whatever the cost in human lives. Last year a series of seemingly generous offers for Africa were made by the drug firms and Western governments. They were cruel hoaxes.
A £700 million offer of cheap drugs from US president Clinton was in reality loans at commercial interest rates to buy US drugs at market prices. Last April Pfizer said it would donate £500 million of its Fluconazole drug to South Africa. Nine months later not a single dose has arrived. Senegal, Uganda, Congo-Brazzaville and others have been made to sign agreements that they will not under any circumstances produce their own AIDS drugs. The drug companies' line is simple-if tens of millions of poor Africans have to die to maintain profits and patent rights then they are just going to have to die.
The South African government should produce its own drugs and call for the solidarity of people everywhere against the killers in the boardrooms of the drug companies.