AIDS and Trade (C.P. Pandya)

This latest report on "corporate villainy" (as Justin Podur has so flatteringly subheaded my blogging efforts) comes under the auspices of government collusion. And its messenger is none other than the bastion of capitalism itself, The Wall Street Journal. A look at two stories in Tuesday's Journal teases the reader to make some fairly obvious connections. Since the paper isn't available free online (remember, "bastion of capitalism"), allow me to summarize.

A new UNAIDS report estimates that nearly 5 million people were newly infected with HIV last year, marking the largest spike in the last 20 years. The official (and therefore underestimated) number of people with HIV now totals well over 40 million, and researchers say the greatest hope for curbing this growth is to offer low-cost generic vaccines. Preventative measures such as antiviral therapy and education could avert 29 million of the 45 million new infections projected to occur between 2002 and 2010, UNAIDS estimates.

Given this startling piece of news, it seems only appropriate that the Journal ran a story with the following headline on its front page Tuesday: "In New Trade Pacts, U.S. Seeks To Limit Reach of Generic Drugs"

Of course! As AIDS researchers beseech the world community to lower trade protections and offer low-cost generic drugs to people around the world, the U.S. is protecting the drug lobby and making it harder for HIV-infected people to get access to life-sustaining medicine.

As the Journal reports, the U.S. is seeking, through new agreements, to stop its trade partners from approving applications for generic drugs for five years if those drugs rely on test data compiled by a designer drug maker (the type of company, let us remember, which has the insitutional and monetary support to conduct costly research with the ease not shared by smaller companies in poorer countries). This allows big pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. fives years to exclusively market and sell their high-priced medicine within countries whose citizens need urgent, affordable medicine to continue living. As the saying goes: profit over people.

Without generic versions of designer U.S. drugs, poorer countries must sit with their hands tied, waiting for these exclusivity agreements to run out before generics are made available. The U.S. government has gone to great lengths to protect the likes of Pfizer, Abbott Labs and Bristol-Myers. In fact, the industry's main lobby group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, routinely gives the U.S. trade representative a "watch list" of countries in potential violation of trade pacts that protect patents on designer drugs. Countries appearing on the "priority" section of this list face possible trade sanctions for trying to work around technicalities to offer low-cost treatments to the sick.

Pfizer had revenue of $49.19 billion in 2003, Bristol-Myers had 2003 sales of $20.89 billion and Abbott had revenue of $19.68 billion in 2003. One can see why these behemoth companies would need the bullying U.S. to protect them from patent-hungry countries whose annual GDPs are but a fraction of these sales figures.

By slapping a country's hand as it tries to reach for a much-needed AIDS vaccine, any talk from the U.S. about wanting, in earnest, to fight the spread of AIDS is at best, mockery.