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Africa Access News

October 19, 2001

Action Alert: Online Petition on Drug Patent Rules Open Until November 2

A petition by Oxfam America, "The World Demands Fairer Rules on Patents," is open for signatures at the Oxfam America site:

Or you can sign at the Global Treatment Access site:

The complete text of the petition is:

"14 million people in the developing world die every year from treatable diseases, including HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. The high cost of medicines is a key factor. World Trade Organization patent rules are pushing up the price of these medicines. I urge WTO members, in particular the United States, to demonstrate their commitment to put health before wealth by changing and clarifying the global patent rules at the forthcoming WTO summit conference."

Note: The reference to the WTO summit is to the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which occurs every two years; the last meeting was in Seattle in 1999. The next meeting is scheduled for November 9-13 in Doha, Qatar, but might be moved to Singapore for security reasons.

Huge Mining Company Says It Cannot Treat Low-Income Workers

According to an October 9 article in the Financial Times, the London-based company Anglo American decided it could not provide antiretroviral treatment to most of its employees in South Africa. Only about 14,000 senior staff will be eligible for the AIDS medicines. The company employs about 160,000 people in Africa, most of them in South Africa -- where about 21% of the employees have HIV.

"The saving you achieve can be substantial, but we really don't know how it will stack up," said one official. "We feel that the cost will be greater than the saving." The company said it would need funding from international donor agencies to distribute AIDS treatment further.

The National Union of Mineworkers (South Africa) called the policy "inherently racist and discriminatory, with beneficiaries of the scheme being, in the main, white workers and the black elite. The foot soldiers who generate wealth in the bowels of the earth are excluded."

South Africa: Glaxo Offers Voluntary License on AZT/3TC

On October 7 GlaxoSmithKline said it would grant a voluntary license to Aspen Pharmacare, South Africa's largest generic drug company, to manufacture and sell AZT and 3TC -- a move sought by activists as well as by Aspen. Apparently this license will only allow the drug to be sold to government and NGO (nonprofit) organizations in South Africa -- not in other African countries. Glaxo will charge a royalty of 30% of net sales, which will be donated to nonprofits fighting AIDS in the country.

The final price of the Aspen drugs is not known but is widely expected to be much higher than prices available from generic manufacturers in India; however, the agreement will avoid legal obstacles that have kept the Indian drugs out of South Africa. (India has patent laws designed to encourage pharmaceutical manufacturers to compete in low-cost production methods -- a system which has worked very well in providing low-cost medicines for that country, but now may have to be ended because of the World Trade Organization treaty, which requires all countries to adopt a U.S./European patent system even for domestic drug production.)

Note: In a separate announcement on October 3, not related to AIDS, GlaxoSmithKline offered discounts averaging 30% for U.S. elderly persons with limited income and without prescription coverage. Those who qualify must be 65 or older, and with income no greater than 300% of the federal poverty level (which today means less than $26,000 for individuals and $35,000 for couples). Qualifying persons will receive a card which they will present at pharmacies. Other companies may be under pressure to match these discounts, since otherwise their products will now become more expensive than competing Glaxo products for the eligible patients.

Generic Company Charges Patent Abuse in South Africa

On or around October 7, a South African affiliate of Cipla, the Indian generic pharmaceutical company, filed legal action in South Africa, accusing GlaxoSmithKline and Boehringer Ingelheim, the maker of nevirapine, of abusing their patents to keep prices high.

The action, described by observers as "legally groundbreaking" and "a major move," could potentially open the door to South African sales of HIV medications at prices much lower than those which will result from the voluntary licensing agreement announced the same day.

Note: For a legal analysis arguing that South Africa is permitted under international trade rules to take "certain legal steps to ensure meaningful reductions in drug prices," see Tripping Over Patents: Aids, Access to Treatment and the Manufacturing of Scarcity, by Jonathan Michael Berger, University of Toronto. It can be downloaded from: (go to Research Papers).

Also on international patents (although perhaps not relevant to this South African case) note Patent Politics, by Michael H. Davis, Cleveland State University College of Law. Davis argues that the "ordinary practitioner" test of nonobviousness, which determines that some patents are granted and some are not, is inherently subjective, allowing patent laws to implement national industrial policy without democratic oversight -- and also making patent law not rationally transferable across national borders. The abstract and link to the full article are available through the Social Science Research Network, at:

UN Secretary General, Pharmaceutical Companies Issue Joint Statement

On October 5 United Nations Secretary General and executives of seven major pharmaceutical companies met and issued an 8-point joint statement on access to treatment. It is at:

Comment: We find it good as far as it goes -- though it does not go very far.

South Africa: Major Conflict Over Death Report

A report by the Medical Research Council (South Africa's government medical-research institution, like the U.S. National Institutes of Health) found that AIDS had become the largest single cause of death in the country, and that 40% of the deaths last year of South Africans age 15-49 were AIDS related. The South African government under President Thabo Mbeki -- which has refused to provide antiretroviral treatment through the public health system, even for prevention of mother-to-infant transmission -- refused to release the report, which was leaked to the press.

The report also predicted that in 10 years AIDS in South Africa would cause more than double the deaths of all other causes combined, and that life expectancy in the country would drop from 54 years to 41.

On October 16, after extensive protests over its suppression, the report was released at:

On October 17 the Guardian (UK) covered the controversy:,4273,4278717,00.html.

U.K. Poll Shows Strong Support for Dual Pricing

On October 8 the British charity Voluntary Service Overseas released a survey showing that 87% of people who responded thought it was right for people with HIV in poor countries to pay less for the medicines than people in the UK, according to The Guardian, UK, October 8.

We do not know of a similar U.S. poll, but almost certainly a large majority here would agree.

For More Information

For more information on treatment access in Africa, see the Web site of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the leading AIDS treatment activist group in South Africa, at

ISSN # 1052-4207

Copyright 2001 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.

Back to the AIDS Treatment News October 19, 2001 contents page.

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This article was provided by AIDS Treatment News. It is a part of the publication AIDS Treatment News.
See Also
More on Generic/Discount HIV Drug Access in the Developing World