What a mess

  • 14/04/2001

A nation like South Africa is the most dramatic example of a situation where drugs are available that would make a big difference to a sizeable part of its population that has been infected by the hiv virus but the people cannot afford to buy them. The country has more people infected with hiv than any other country. Twenty per cent of adults carry the virus and sometimes the victims are children too. They cannot afford the us $10,000 to 15,000 that is needed every year to meet the cost of purchasing anti- aids drugs in the West.

In the process an Indian company cipla has stirred up a hornet's nest by offering to sell its inexpensive versions of 8 of the 15 drugs sold in the United States at $600 for a year's supply to the country and $300 to the Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without borders), the Nobel Peace Prize winning international voluntary organisation. Should the poor be denied drugs under the excuse that drug prices are high due to intellectual property rights are now issues that are being played out on the global stage. While companies argue they have to spend a lot on research and have to price the drugs high, they have lost the moral right to back their claims. Worse they made a blunder by suing South Africa for attempting to buy cheap copies of generic drugs.

The issue is now no longer of property rights which the us has been towing by having dragged Brazil in January to the wto over the same issue. They have also been forced to rethink and offered to sell their medicine at discounted rates to South Africa. But this is something they should have done much earlier.

By giving the drugs cheap, the firms have nothing to lose as these people were never a potential market and would never have bought the drugs. cipla's case is very simple. The move shows that this is not about patents but more about reducing human suffering. Therefore the rules of the game have to change. This is the beginning of a new game in town

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