Tripping Africa: Congrats South Africa. the Drugs Issue Is the Opening Shot of a Wider Battle. (Opinion)

Article excerpt

They tried to intimidate South Africa. And they used big guns to try and do it -- including Al Gore, then vice-president of the United States and soon to become the elected-president-who-was-diselected-by-the-US-Supreme Court.

They were the big international drug companies. They used Al Gore to try and frighten the South African government into abandoning its determination to challenge the high prices at which the companies wanted to make certain drugs available to developing countries.

The South African government seeks to allow its own drug-manufacturing companies to be able to by-pass the big transnational corporations and manufacture drugs locally where the local companies have the capacity to do so. Where the local companies cannot manufacture the needed drugs, importation of cheaper, generic brands, will be allowed.

This is an eminently sensible thing to seek to do in a country whose population is being devastated by HIV/Aids-related illnesses. But the trans-nationals said no, South Africa could not do what it needed to do to save the lives of its population because the companies had patented the drugs South Africa wanted to manufacture!

So even if what was processed in South Africa was only a generic version of the patented drugs -- and South Africa would call it any name -- it could still not manufacture the drugs.

Nor could it import from India or Brazil if these two countries had successfully manufactured their own brands which they were prepared to sell to South Africa at a fraction of the cost charged by the drug giants.

Meanwhile, as the haggling went on, South Africans suffering from HIV/Aids-related diseases were dying by the thousand.

It's been two years since the controversy broke out. And in those two years, the drug companies have deployed their considerable resources to demonise the South African president, Thabo Mbeki. When Mbeki says he thinks there are other diseases that have symptoms like HIV/Aids involved in the deaths occurring in South Africa, this is twisted to mean that he is denying the existence of HIV/Aids itself.

When he asks scientists whose job it is to think deeply about diseases, to come to a conference to examine the orthodoxies associated with HTV/Aids related diseases, he is depicted as a crank who is encouraging "quack" scientists to dispute established facts about HIV/Aids.

Why is it a sin to ask the "established, reputable scientists" to defend their theories about HIV/Aids? No, that cannot be allowed. And unfortunately, the Western media generally bought the disinformation, and hurled brickbats at Mbeki.

The court case

Not satisfied with the success of their propaganda, the drug manufacturers took a final gamble. Thirty-nine of them instituted a case against the South African government in the South African high court to try and establish that the South African government would be breaking its own laws if it tried to obtain cheap imports of, or locally manufactured generic drugs, to be used to treat HIV/Aids and other diseases.

The case is of immense importance, for if South Africa wins, countries like Kenya, Ghana and others, upon whom pressure like that applied to South Africa, have been unleashed, will be strengthened to defy the profit-hungry trans-nationals.

Actually, the case is weird because in international law, a patent can only be granted in a country by the government of that country. So, what the drugs companies are trying to demonstrate at the heart of their case is that the South African government, having itself "granted" them "patents" under its own laws (if it has) has no right to revoke such "patents" even if it finds revocation necessary to protect its own population!

In their public arguments, the companies have been resorting to a contentious World Trade Organisation (WTO) provision -- not yet in effect but called TRIPS -- to try and "trip" the South African government. …

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