Socialist Worker

Bush's world of bombs and disease

The United States is blocking a deal to give to give Third World countries access to cheap AIDS drugs. Charlie Kimber says that this is a war on the poor

Issue No. 1840

GEORGE BUSH and his business backers are sentencing millions of people to death by withholding drugs required to combat HIV infection and AIDS. Bush has worked alongside the world's biggest pharmaceutical firms to defend the patents that keep up the prices of anti-HIV and anti-AIDS medicines.

Last week Bush's US trade negotiating team smashed up an agreement that could have made the drugs available to millions of people in the Third World. They blocked changes to an agreement known as TRIPS (Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) that would have allowed countries to buy or make cheaper drugs when demanded by a health emergency.

Bush's decision means millions of orphans, economies wrecked, families destroyed, and a mound of corpses. Last year 6,000 people died every day in Africa from AIDS. Bush's policy has guaranteed it will be even worse next year. This is what US power means. It is the global force to squeeze debt repayments from devastated countries, to enforce economic policies that clear the way for the multinationals, to deal out certain death because people are too poor to afford care.

Campaigning against the war in Iraq is about opposing US power. Many protests are demanding that US government control is broken and that people should come before the multinationals' profits. World leaders are comfortably presiding over a system where 3.1 million people died last year from HIV/AIDS, 40 million will die soon, and thousands of millions are at risk. Yet they have only pledged $2 billion to the major world initiative to combat this devastation.

Richard Feachem, head of the United Nations Global Fund to Fight AIDS, says, 'The HIV/ AIDS pandemic is not going to peak until 2050 or 2060. We're very early in something that is very devastating.

'A few billion dollars to take action against that threat are paltry. But also what about a war with Iraq? That would cost somewhere between $100 billion and $200 billion, so if you make that comparison this is small change.' Major companies have patented the most appropriate combinations of drugs for AIDS in 37 out of 53 African countries and almost all of Asia and Latin America. This means the prices stay high. A true comparison would be asking someone in Britain to pay £300 a day to get crucial treatment.

The US government has forced a rule through the World Trade Organisation that makes it impossible for poor countries to import cheaper ('generic') versions of these drugs even if companies do relax patents. Trade ministers promised to remove this lethal clause last year, after intense pressure from people across the world. The US government last week blocked a deal to make drugs, including anti-retrovirals, cheaper.

Anti-retroviral drugs inhibit HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and boost the immune system's ability to fight infections. They have led to a dramatic reduction in HIV-related illness and death in countries where they have become widely available. But the vast majority of people with HIV/AIDS live in poor countries and are too poor to get the treatment.

The US keeps a list of countries called Special 301. If these countries step out of line over issues such as drug patents they will face trade sanctions. The poorest countries, which will never develop their own drugs industries, are left off the list. Countries that might export generic medicines are kept on. The terror of falling foul of the US's diplomatic, economic and military power is enough to bring most into line.

A recent report from the charity Oxfam says, 'Special 301 is a big stick widely feared by developing countries - not just because of the threat of sanctions but because of the associated political pressures.' The power to bully and inflict carnage - that is what Bush wants to reinforce through war on Iraq.

Poverty is death

HIV-POSITIVE people need a combination of drugs to keep the HIV levels low in their blood. The simplest combination is zidovudine (AZT), lamivudine (3TC), and either efavirenz or nevirapine.

The multinational drugs company GlaxoSmithKline sells Combivir (AZT plus 3TC) for $620.50 a year to the poorest African countries. Boehringer Ingelheim sells nevirapine for $438 a year. The total price of treatment is $1,058 a year. Indian generic drugs company Cipla sells a pill called Triomune, which combines all three drugs, for $304 a year. This is less than a third of the multinationals' price.

Abolishing patents and the drug companies' stranglehold would be a step forward. But it would not be nearly enough to save everyone. Around 15 percent of people in Malawi in Africa are HIV positive, 1.7 million people. The entire health budget is $52 million.

Even if the whole budget was spent on anti-AIDS drugs it would cover only 49,149 people if bought at the multinationals' price, or 171,052 at the cheaper rate. Nobody gets the drugs unless they pay for treatment themselves. Most people live on around 50 cents a day or less.

The humane policy would be to make treatment free, to cancel the debt which pumps money away from health and education services in poor countries, and to pour money into research to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Prices kept high

IN 2001 the four giant pharmaceutical firms grabbed over $27 billion in profits. The 2002 figure will certainly be over $30 billion. These companies do not make huge profits from AIDS drugs in the Third World. Very few people can afford them. They protect the patents in order to keep prices high in Europe and the US, and to defend the system where they control the cost of medicines that could benefit everyone.

GlaxoSmithKline sells the drug Combivir in Africa at $620.50 a year. It sells the same drug in Britain at $6,638 a year, making massive profits.

US distributes misery

BUSH ANNOUNCED $15 billion to fight HIV and AIDS in his State of the Union address on 28 January. It was a cynical manoeuvre to cover his crimes. The money is not directed towards the UN Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. It will receive only $1 billion of the proposed extra aid over the next five years. Instead of contributing to the Global Fund, Bush is giving the new money to US government agencies, such as USAID.

USAID is the major government body for distributing aid. Its role is to boost the strategic and economic interests of the US government. Over the next year around a quarter of its $8 billion budget will go to Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan.

USAID administrator Andrew Natsios opposes the treatment of AIDS with anti-retrovirals in poor countries. The team which directs US policy on AIDS reveals the motives which drive the policy. It includes Dr Anthony Fauci, a leading expert on 'bio-terrorism', Joshua Bolton, head of national security, and Robin Cleveland, deputy national security adviser.

Such people believe that AIDS is important only when it is a security threat to the US, not when it is a killer of tens of millions in Africa and Asia.

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Sat 1 Mar 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1840
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