Drug firms try to halt cheap Aids treatment

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The Independent Online

About 2,000 activists and Aids sufferers protested outside the American embassy in Pretoria yesterday, on the first day of a landmark court case launched by the global drugs industry and aimed at preventing the South African government from providing cheap generic anti-retroviral drugs to treat people infected with the virus.

About 2,000 activists and Aids sufferers protested outside the American embassy in Pretoria yesterday, on the first day of a landmark court case launched by the global drugs industry and aimed at preventing the South African government from providing cheap generic anti-retroviral drugs to treat people infected with the virus.

"The South African economy will die along with millions of workers who have HIV-Aids [if the drug companies succeed in their action]," said one of the protesters, Bheki Buthelezi. "All the while, the rich companies of the West get richer."

At the gates of the embassy, Robert F Godec, a US economic affairs counsellor, angered protesters by refusing to take delivery of a memo setting out their case. "I have no comment except to say that we thank you for sharing your views and will relay them to the US government," he said from behind a phalanx of police.

Protest marches were staged in several South African cities to mark the start of the case that pits the world's big pharmaceutical companies against local laws that enable drug patents to be circumvented to obtain cheap drugs for the poor during health crises - such as the HIV-Aids pandemic that has infected 4.2 million South Africans.

Aids and human rights organisations are urging drug multinationals to drop the case - and for the American government to help persuade them to do so. The protesters say the drug companies are putting profits before people's lives.

Glenys Kinnock, a member of the European Parliament and a lobbyist for Oxfam, told the crowd there had been misrepresentation of the issues by drug companies and the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association, which launched the court action three years ago.

The drug companies argue that if they lose patent protections in developing countries it will be a disaster for their drug research and development. But Mrs Kinnock said: "The reality is that they spend twice as much on marketing and administration than on R&D, that Africa comprises 1 per cent of the global market, that there are Aids drugs developed using public money, and that the overwhelming majority of their R&D spending is on drugs with little relevance to Africa."

The South African government, itself criticised for being slow and ambiguous in its response to the Aids crisis, argues that it has a constitutional duty to provide health care to all and that the disputed 1997 laws - which have been stalled by drug company action for three years - do not contravene World Trade Organisation rules.

Mrs Kinnock pledged to obtain active European Union support for the South African government's position.

In yesterday's court case, the drug companies began arguing before Judge Bernard Ngoepe that poor drafting of the South African laws make them unconstitutional and in conflict with patent laws.

The case is scheduled to last until next Monday, but is likely to take much longer.

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