The poor need medicines, but the drug industry is not a global charity

Share

At first humanitarian glance, the merits of the case which opened yesterday in Pretoria could not be clearer. The defendant is South Africa, 10 per cent of its population infected by the HIV virus, needing billions of dollars it does not have to pay world-market prices for the drugs required to treat this modern plague. And the plaintiffs? None other than the big drug companies, dripping billions of dollars in profits, refusing to permit the cheap production of their drugs which could save thousands of lives.

At first humanitarian glance, the merits of the case which opened yesterday in Pretoria could not be clearer. The defendant is South Africa, 10 per cent of its population infected by the HIV virus, needing billions of dollars it does not have to pay world-market prices for the drugs required to treat this modern plague. And the plaintiffs? None other than the big drug companies, dripping billions of dollars in profits, refusing to permit the cheap production of their drugs which could save thousands of lives.

As one Oxfam official fulminates, "At the end of the seven days of this trial, 5,000 poor South Africans will be dead who were alive at the beginning of it. In the same time, the top five drug companies will have sold $1.3bn of medicines." So there, with the help of some misleading statistics, you have it: wicked multinational corporations putting bloated First World profits ahead of Third World lives. Fine, emotive stuff - except it is simplification verging on distortion.

We would be the last to deny the desperate need to get vital drugs to those who need them, at prices they can afford. But the drug industry is not, and so long as it operates in a capitalist system cannot be, a global charity. Of course it must generate profits for shareholders; but no less important is the generation of revenue to recoup its huge research and development costs.

Producing drugs is a gamble; unless they are allowed to make money on successful drugs, say the companies, they will have no incentive to develop new ones; for every Zantac, Prozac or Viagra, there are a hundred expensively researched ventures which come to nothing.

Usually, this does not greatly matter. The medications above were invented to improve the quality of life in rich countries rather than save lives in poor ones, however grudgingly we pay the going rate. The problem arises when a drug becomes a public-health necessity, not only here but in the poorer world, too. And so to Aids in southern Africa and the courtroom in Pretoria. The companies are not seeking to bleed South Africa dry, but to protect patent rights on their products.

South Africa's case may be less watertight than it seems. At least two immediate questions need answers: is it true that the companies have offered HIV drugs to the country at generic prices, but have received no answer? And second, why has South Africa not invoked its emergency right under World Trade Organisation rules to compulsory licensing - to give a drug patent to another company to produce, irrespective of whether the original patent holder agrees? Health emergencies come no bigger than the sub-Saharan Aids crisis.

But the current dispute raises more basic issues about the international drugs business. Might we not, for instance, consider speeding drug-approval regimes, which would cut research costs and get products to market sooner and more cheaply, albeit at a greater risk? More obviously, bilateral aid programmes must increase, as must Western government funding of research, particularly into tropical medicines. This, too, might help nudge prices lower - but not low enough to bring them within the reach of poorer Third World countries.

Most important, it cannot be beyond the wit of man to devise a workable, policeable system of differential pricing. Purists will insist that two-tier markets are inherently leaky, that cheap drugs meant for the Third World will be channelled back to the First World by unscrupulous profiteers. Of course there will be abuse. But a measure of cheating is a price worth paying for a compromise protecting both the legitimate interests of the drug companies, and the lives of African generations yet unborn.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A woman runs down the street  

Should wolf-whistling be reported to the Police? If you're Poppy Smart, then yes

Jane Merrick
 

Voices in Danger: How can we prevent journalists from being sexually assaulted in conflict zones?

Heather Blake
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence