Blood and Gore

Article excerpt

Vice President Al Gore is being beset by protesters over his attempts to strong-arm South Africa into barring the manufacture of cheap generic substitutes for drugs to treat its huge population that is HIV-positive or suffering with AIDS. Yet Gore's efforts are just a sliver of the story when it comes to US harassment of Third World nations over their drug policies.

In the past few years, the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR), which is charged with promoting American commercial interests abroad, has become a virtual appendage of the drug industry. One of its chief aims has been to discourage-by wielding the threat of trade sanctions-the use of generic drugs abroad, especially in the Third World. Such policies are especially cruel because the cost of drugs accounts for up to 60 percent of the healthcare budget in poor countries. "In the old days, the government made the world safe for Standard Oil," says Jamie Love of the Center for the Study of Responsive Law. "Now it's making the world safe for the drug companies."

The USTR, which did not return phone calls, has threatened at least seven countries with trade sanctions if they allow generic substitutes for the cancer drug Taxol onto domestic markets. Bristol-Meyers Squibb-one of the corporate world's most generous political donors, with soft-money contributions of $559,975 in the last election cycle-has also enlisted the services of Gore, who personally pressured South African officials to ban substitutes for Taxol. The South Africans have held firm.

Thailand, too, has felt the whip of the USTR, which threatened to impose sanctions if the government passed a bill requiring that generic substitutes be listed on the packaging of brand-name drugs. Argentina was punished because in international forums its drug companies opposed US positions on patent protection and the intellectual property rights of multinational drug-makers. Its firms "continue to work aggressively to frustrate our efforts," Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said in explaining a 1997 decision increasing tariffs on exports from Buenos Aires. …