sábado, dezembro 03, 2005

Afinal quem ganha com a sida?

Op-Ed: "People with HIV/AIDS Lose as Drug Companies Gain"
December 1, 2005 - Detroit Free Press
by Salih Booker & Ann-Louise Colgan*

On Dec. 1 each year, the international community marks World AIDS Day. On this day, and every day, the pharmaceutical industry rakes in more than $100 million in profits. As the most profitable industry in human history protects its patents and its own prosperity, millions of lives are needlessly lost each year for lack of access to essential HIV/AIDS treatment.

In Africa, ground zero of the global HIV/AIDS crisis, there are currently more than 25 million people living with HIV/AIDS -- two-thirds of the global total. For these people, and for millions of others living with HIV/AIDS around the world, access to antiretroviral treatment is a matter of life and death. It can literally mean the difference between living with HIV and dying of AIDS.

But the prices charged by drug companies, and the policies pursued by rich countries at their behest, continue to keep life saving treatment out of reach for millions of people, especially those most affected in Africa.

The latest UNAIDS report notes an improvement in access to HIV treatment in impoverished countries, and states that as many as 350,000 deaths were averted in 2005 as a result. But this improvement is absolutely minimal in the face of a crisis of this scale.

Moreover, the same report emphasizes that at best, one in 10 Africans in need of antiretroviral treatment is now receiving it. Treatment simply is not being delivered quickly or broadly enough to reach those who need it to survive.

This situation will not change until the behavior of the big pharmaceutical companies changes. As long as they insist on safeguarding their patents and protecting their exorbitant profits, essential treatment will remain out of the hands of millions of people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa and elsewhere.

And as long as the United States and other rich countries insist on promoting the drug companies' interests through their policies -- using expensive brand-name drugs instead of lower-cost generic versions -- the promise of universal access to HIV treatment by 2010 has little hope of being realized.

This question of drug-company patents is central to defeating AIDS. The patents that pharmaceutical companies hold on particular products give them monopoly pricing power, so they can charge high prices and generate huge profits on the sale of these products. In contrast, if drug companies' patents expire or are released, generic versions of these products can be produced at much lower cost. For HIV/AIDS treatments, it is estimated that regimens using brand-name antiretrovirals cost at least three times as much as their generic equivalents. However, the availability of these cheaper treatments remains limited because of drug-company pressure.

The Bush administration's initiative to address HIV/AIDS in Africa --the so-called President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) --protects the interests of the big pharmaceutical companies by using only patented, brand-name drugs in its treatment programs. The higher cost of these treatments means they reach only about one-third of those who would benefit from cheaper, generic drugs. It is no coincidence that the U.S. HIV/AIDS initiative is run by a former pharmaceutical company executive and major Republican contributor, Randall Tobias.

Meanwhile, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is running effective treatment and care programs in dozens of African countries, using generic antiretrovirals, but it is consistently constrained in its operations by a lack of U.S. funding support.

Despite growing public pressure, the pharmaceutical lobby continues to aggressively defend its patent rights. The drug companies argue that they need strong patent protection and high prices to fund research and development of new drugs.

But critics counter that these companies spend several times more on marketing and public relations than they do on research and development, and much of their research is publicly funded. Given the financial stake of the pharmaceutical industry, the idea of relinquishing patent rights may sound fanciful. But it is not without precedent. Sixty years ago, the drug company Merck produced the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis.

Rather than upholding its patent so it could earn huge profits on this drug, George Merck, the company's head and son of its founder, released the patent so any company could manufacture the drug streptomycin. This decision kept the drug's cost minimal and kept hundreds of thousands of people alive.

In 1952, George Merck appeared on the cover of Time magazine above a caption of his own words: "Medicine is for people, not for profits." Today, the zealous protection of their patents by Merck and other companies keeps life-saving antiretroviral treatment inaccessible for millions of people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa and elsewhere. Until human lives are placed above profit motive, we will continue to lose the fight against AIDS, and the fight for human security for all.

*SALIH BOOKER is executive director and ANN-LOUISE COLGAN is director of policy analysis and communications at Africa Action, the oldest Africa advocacy organization in the United States.

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