By Noel Halifax
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HIV: why profit comes before treatment

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The second in our series on HIV/Aids looks at battles over medicines
Issue 2257

There was an initial panic that HIV/Aids would cause a pandemic on the scale of the 14th century Black Death.

This began to subside when it became clear that the HIV virus wasn’t easily transmitted.

Science overcame irrationality and the search for a cure or vaccine began.

But the development of Aids drugs exposes the rot of capitalism.

It is a system that, despite enormous capacity and wealth, puts profit before people’s health.

In 1980 a worldwide research programme was launched to find a cure.

This was dominated by a race between French and US research teams as to who could first identify and name the virus.

They withheld research from each other because they knew that, in a world of privatised medical research, patents and profits would go to the victors.

After a fight, the US got most of the patents and the profits.

Drug patents give the holder exclusive rights to make and sell the drugs.

This is despite the fact that they can be manufactured at a tiny proportion of the price they are sold for.

From the mid-1990s a number of drugs were developed that could keep the virus at bay for years.

But still there was no cure.

The brutal truth is that there is less profit to be made from a cure than there is from producing medicine that keep the patient alive, but dependent on the drugs.

The response of right wing politicians to

HIV/Aids was to scapegoat LGBT people.

They launched a vicious attack on the gains of the 1960s and 1970s.

This formed part of a general attack on the left.

Aids had a devastating impact. Many of the best activists of the gay rights movement died.

It put LGBT people and sufferers of HIV/Aids on the back foot and made the movement for liberation more defensive.

A drop in the level of general struggle across society exacerbated this.

Many activists retreated into their own community—a new form of “identity politics”. This divided LGBT activists off from the rest of society.


In most cities, clubs, bars and areas owned and run by LGBT people were set up, and the “pink economy” emerged.

The movement had retreated from protests on the streets.

But the slow pace of treatment and support, and the bigoted response to HIV/Aids, provoked a fightback.

In the US, president Ronald Reagan refused to fund research, treatment and support for people with HIV/Aids.

A US group called Act-Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed in 1987 as a result.

It used direct action to campaign against the drug companies and the government.

In March 1989, activists invaded Wall Street over the price of the one Aids drug.

They also shut down the Food and Drug Administration for a day that same year—with the largest demonstration since the Vietnam war.

Activists held “die-ins” across the country, promoting safe sex and highlighting homophobia. And, lacking the equivalent of Britain’s NHS, they supported people with Aids with an informal welfare system.

The movement spread to Britain, but with less of an impact.

Here the NHS provided HIV treatment for free.

And a widespread safe sex campaign helped tackle the spread of the virus and open up a discussion about sex.

But around the world the virus was spreading.

In the last decade it has become a critical issue across the Global South. A combination of poverty, lack of adequate health care and the presence of a life-threatening virus has been disastrous.

Around 22.5 million people were living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2009.

And, an estimated 1.3 million Africans died from Aids in 2009.

People with HIV/Aids in poor nations are battling US drug companies that have refused to waive patents to allow affordable drugs to be developed.

Brazil defied US threats and produced its own HIV drugs in 2001.

The drug companies capitulated—and reduced their prices by over half.

That same year, the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, affirmed access to Aids drugs as a human right.

It was passed unanimously with one exception—the US abstained.

In my next column I will look at the current status of HIV/Aids across the globe, and the battle for access to drugs and for research shaped by need, not profit.

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