Africa Access: AIDS Activists Organizing Burkina Faso Summit on Generics

Interview with Paul Davis and Asia Russell

Earlier this year Paul Davis and Asia Russell traveled to Paris to help plan the Summit on Generics, a meeting for health ministers from developing countries and others, originally scheduled for May 3-7 in Burkina Faso, West Africa -- shortly before the important World Health Assembly in Geneva. Activists from Paris and from Burkina Faso had organized the generics meeting. We asked Paul Davis and Asia Russell, both members of ACT UP Philadelphia and of the Health GAP Coalition, to tell our readers what was happening.

This interview took place in early March. Paul and Asia made changes on April 5.

AIDS Treatment News: What was the meeting in Paris, and why was it important?

Russell: Every year in May the top government health officials from around the world meet in Geneva, at a conference called the World Health Assembly. This year the U.S. delegation will be headed by Tommy Thompson, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services appointed by President Bush. All countries that are members of the World Health Organization can send a delegation.

Last year a few AIDS activists from the U.S. and elsewhere went to the World Health Assembly meeting, and found that delegates from poor countries were at a big disadvantage. The U.S. delegation had almost 30 members, but many small countries could only afford to send one, two, or three. So the agendas of the rich countries -- mostly set by big pharmaceutical companies -- were the ones the meeting served.

Davis: For example, one of the important issues for poor countries is to get the World Health Organization to give them practical help by compiling a database of worldwide prices for high-quality drugs. But pharmaceutical companies are strongly opposed; they want to sell their drugs at their prices to countries that do not have the resources to compile this information themselves.

So last year at the World Health Assembly, people were lured away to parties and receptions and meeting rooms, and the United States in one unseemly maneuver convened a meeting of mostly wealthy countries to make decisions that included this database of drug prices around the world. They killed this database at a closed-door meeting when most of the delegates were absent. So we ran around to inform the delegates from the global South [the world's poorer countries] to attend this meeting, that it was happening right then, and they were being excluded from the decision making. They were very angry when they found out what had happened.

AIDS Treatment News: What is being done differently this year?

Davis: This year ACT UP Paris and African and other AIDS NGOs [non-government organizations, usually called nonprofits in the U.S.] have organized a pre-meeting for health ministers, people with AIDS, activists, health care providers and others in Burkina Faso, in early May, shortly before the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva. The Burkina Faso meeting builds on the experience last summer at the World AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, where ACT UP Paris called a very successful meeting of health ministers and generic drug manufacturers to talk about drug availability and procurement. At Burkina Faso the participants will have a chance to talk and strategize among themselves, and then bring their own agendas, including access to high-quality affordable medicines, to the World Health Assembly in Geneva. The World Health Assembly meeting, in turn, will set the mandate for the World Health Organization for the next year.

The meeting in Paris that Asia Russell and I just attended was a planning session for the Burkina Faso meeting, which will be called the Summit on Generics.

AIDS Treatment News: Who else is helping organize the Summit on Generics?

Davis: ReMeD (Réseau Médicaments et Développement / Drugs and Development Network) a rational drugs use agency which is doing a lot on the ground in Africa, has been partners with ACT UP Paris in organizing this meeting. RAP+ (African Network of People with AIDS), Health Action International, which has many local groups in Africa, Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK) and many other groups were also helping in Paris. MSF (Doctors without Borders), and Oxfam GB, are also sponsors of the Summit on Generics.

Davis: This meeting has several purposes:

  • This will be a very crowded calendar year for treatment access campaign issues. The Summit on Generics in Burkina Faso will be a place to share information among those seeking wider access to AIDS medicine.

  • It will also help share information and build solidarity among national campaigns. Already at the Paris meeting there were people from Burkina Faso, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire, Burundi, Cameroon, and several other countries.

    If we are successful in creating a bulk procurement and distribution program at the U.N. level, it still will require local support within nations. So there are many threads coming together in this Summit. The planning meeting was put together very well.

  • The Summit on Generics will serve as a pre-meeting or orientation to other meetings coming up during the year in addition to the World Health Assembly. This includes the United Nations Special Session on HIV and AIDS (UNGASS) and the G-8 meeting in July in Genoa, Italy.

  • And after the health ministers and treatment access campaigners have talked among themselves, they will meet with funders -- corporate sponsors, foundations, rich-country donors and others, and with decision makers, to talk about practical solutions. Now that we have made progress in getting the United States to be somewhat less of an obstruction to access to medicine, it is time for rich countries, especially the U.S., and foundations to be involved in solutions. This is the agenda we will bring to the World Health Assembly, where we will be focusing on the essential drugs list; this is among the proposals we are bringing to UNGASS, where we will focus on bulk drug procurement; and we will also be focusing on debt cancellation later in the year. So we will be trying to tie up many strings in the Burkina Faso Summit on Generics.

We hope this summit can serve as a pre-meeting to strategize, and prepare an agenda, because in the past the people who came with an agenda were mainly pharmaceutical-company representatives.

Russell: In the fight for treatment access, generic drugs for HIV treatment need to be talked about as a key tool that poor countries can use to translate the desire for sustained access to affordable medication into reality.

Especially in Africa, some key medications are patent protected, while others are not currently patented -- so there is a lot of information about intellectual property law and the recourses countries have, such as compulsory licensing, that will be shared and discussed at this important Summit on Generics. Even countries where there is little patent protection currently, and where generics could provide low cost, quality access, are facing dramatic new restrictions to their domestic patent laws, thanks to the rules of the World Trade Organization. Now is a critical time to be strategizing with an array of activist and health care organizations about coordinated efforts to fight for access to affordable medication.

To listen to the brand-name pharmaceutical companies, generics amount to no more than "piracy." Much of this summit will be cutting through some of the myths with facts, and talking in a hands-on way about the resources people need and next steps people can take in order to make access to affordable medicine a reality.

Note: The Web site for the Summit on Generics is

Note: We have received word that the Summit on Generics may be postponed due to scheduling difficulties. For more information, check the Web site or contact ACT UP Paris: Sylvain Coudret, Planet Africa, Commission Nord/Sud, Act Up-Paris, BP287 - 75525 Paris Cedex 11; fax: (011) 33-1-48- 06-16-74, email:

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 March 30, 2001 contents page.