U.S. officials, responding to complaints from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, claim in a challenge before the World Trade Organization that Brazil is violating intellectual property rights.
In 1997, the Brazilian government waived patent rights on HIV/AIDS drugs and began permitting local companies to produce inexpensive versions of the same triple therapy cocktail that has resulted in better survival rates in the United States.
Now nearly all Brazilians with AIDS get the cocktail free of charge, and as a result, the death rate has dropped by 50 percent. Brazil has a public health law that requires patent holders of essential medications to either produce drugs locally at a controlled price or allow a local company to do so.
Prices 'beyond the realm of this world'
Brazilian national health program director Paulo Teixeira called the prices charged by the pharmaceutical houses "beyond the realm of this world." Teixeira said that his country plans to manufacture the two AIDS treatment drugs--efavirenz and nelfinavir--while the U.S. challenge is being discussed in the WTO. Health officials in Brazil say that efavirenz can be produced there for less than half of the $4,800 a year wholesale price that New Jersey-based Merck & Co. charges.
Willian Amaral, secretary general of the Rio de Janeiro Grupo Pela Vidda, an AIDS support group, said if Brazilian companies are not permitted to manufacture the drugs, "the prices are just going to continue to be exorbitant, which means people are going to die over a purely economic question."
The U.S. trade officials deny their challenge will prevent Brazil from producing generic drugs. They claim Washington's only concern is the "protectionist" aspect of Brazil's law that would, U.S. officials allege, force international companies to produce the medications in Brazil.
South Africa has also come in conflict with Washington on this issue. In March, some 40 pharmaceutical companies will go to court challenging a 1997 South African law that allows the government to import low-cost drugs. The architect of the law, former South African president Nelson Mandela, defends South Africa's right to buy the less costly drugs to provide treatment for the 4 million people who suffer from AIDS in that country.
The Indian company Cipla, one of the largest producers of generic drugs, recently offered to work with the French group Doctors Without Borders to make the triple-therapy cocktail available to African governments for $600 per year per patient. This would be $400 lower than the lowest price charged by major Western pharmaceutical companies under their "philanthropic price discounts," which are negotiated on a product-by-product and country-by-country basis. These companies charge $10,000-$15,000 per person for a year's medication in the United States.
Last year Glaxo-Wellcome threatened to sue Cipla when it attempted to sell a generic version of Glazo's anti-AIDS drug Combivir in Ghana. The threat apparently had a chilling effect on Cipla because the company stopped selling the drug even after the head examiner for the African regional patent authority ruled against Glaxo.
Companies in Brazil and Thailand also produce a generic version of the drug fluconazole, which is important in combating meningitis, for $100 a year for a course of treatment, in contrast with the $3,000 a year the patented drug costs.
In general, Washington uses the threat of trade sanctions to protect world markets for U.S. companies. For example, U.S. trade officials recently told 16 countries, including India, Egypt, the Dominican Republic, and Thailand, to protect U.S. companies' patents or face trade reprisals.
In the case of the Dominican Republic, this could include withdrawal of trade preferences for textile exports, resulting in the loss of 200,000 jobs.
In the United States, the Center for Disease Control recently announced that AIDS is on the increase among U.S. Blacks.
According to a CDC study conducted in six cities--Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Seattle--from 1998 to 2000, the infection rate is now 30 percent among men in their 20s who are Black and gay. This is up from 14 percent in 1994-1998.
While Blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, more than half of the people newly infected with HIV are Black.
The disease now infects one in every 50 Black men, and is the leading cause of death among African-Americans between 25 and 44 years old. Blacks are 10 times more likely than whites to be diagnosed with AIDS, and 10 times more likely to die from it.
Canada presses trade war against Brazil
'Lift the embargo against Brazil now'
Prisoners' rebellion in Brazil exposes dismal conditions (photo box)
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