AIDS is still out there
It’s Irish AIDS Day. Nope, it hasn’t gone anywhere. Things have changed though, and AIDS is like an allegory for the difference between the haves and have-nots – those in the west are living with AIDS and HIV, while those with nothing are continuing to die.
From the very start, when HIV was first diagnosed, people have fought over who could make the most money out of it. Infamously, even the question of who made the first diagnosis is controversial, with Robert Gallo in the US and Luc Montagnier in France each claiming to be the first. Eventually, the French and US governments agreed to an equal split of the proceeds from the patent.
Since then, it’s been the drugs companies who have made billions on those living with HIV and AIDS.
When you are talking about this epidemic, you can’t expect things to be business as usual. People are dying, we must help. It seems so simple, but to the main drugs companies Merck, Abbott, Gilead, Bristol Myers Squibb and GlaxoSmithKline (whose motto is “Do more, feel better, live longer”), this means people will pay anything for their drugs.
Back in 1996, HAART, one of the first combination therapies that was working to make people’s lives easier, cost $41 a day. Obviously no one was going to subsidise those living in the Third World. The big drugs companies between them owned all of the patents to the drugs required. They could decide what the price should be.
This is where the big problem lies: patents.
Imagine that Disprin was the only headache tablet on the market, they owned the patent to headache medicine and no one else could make it. Ker-ching!
It takes years for a patent to run out, but they do run out and once that happens anyone can make your headache tablets. This brings competition which brings the price down.
Patents are a money-making machine and, wouldn’t you know it, just when one runs out an upgraded version suddenly appears under patent.
It took a while for the counties most affected by the AIDS epidemic, to realise that it’s not just a health issue but a political issue. In Brazil, for example, the government decided that it was breaking a patent for Kaletra, bringing down a rain of fire from Abbott, the manufacturer.
In 2001, in South Africa (the epicentre for HIV and AIDS) the drugs companies took the government to court for allowing for the production and importing of affordable AIDS drugs. After a global public outcry, they dropped their case.
Bristol Myers Squibb said
Although we’re not actually relinquishing our rights to Zerit, if somebody in South Africa infringes on the method of use in our patent, we’re not going to object.
Very kind of them. This is only happening because of political pressure, the threat of sanctions and competition for government contracts in these countries.
In an excellent article from Avert, they sum it up:
Some countries, such as Thailand, Brazil and India have found innovative ways of securing cheaper second-line drugs. But the problem is that these options are limited to countries with political clout and financial stability and autonomy. As is all too often the case, it is the poorest countries already struggling to manage their HIV epidemics that are the least likely to benefit from the current system.
So what can be done? The ideal would be to give the patents to companies in these countries at a lower price or give licenses to grant their production. This would mean that they could skill themselves, make the money themselves and stop having to depend on the goodwill of a profit-making machine. Give a man a fish and all that.
There is no indication that this will happen, however. As patents expire and cheaper alternatives are available, the drugs companies will adapt and continue to make money.
Let’s be clear though, these are commercial companies with shareholders and not charities. They exist to make money and no one is saying that they shouldn’t. Plus, the drugs they have created have saved lives. What we are saying is that there is no price on a human life and some middle ground has to be found.