In aid of Africa

How do you fight a company making you an offer you can't accept ?

Published: Tuesday 15 August 2000

don corleone was probably the most popular citizen in the us when Hollywood made the film The Godfather . He used to make people offers they couldn't refuse. If they did they wound up dead. In the case of Africa, the local people and the government have been made an offer by the drug industry, if they accept this offer they could wind up dead. So how do they refuse? They raise a stink that hiv and aid s are unrelated in the first place and aids is caused due to various environmental factors and poverty induced lifestyles. They also rope in a bunch of renegade scientists to back up their claim.

The link between hiv and aids is very clear and accepted in scientific circles everywhere. So why did the South Africans do what they did in the first place? Perhaps they wanted to draw attention to the abject poverty prevailing in their country and force the international community to look at that very generous offer made to them by the drug companies in that light. The drug firms are willing to offer the life saving medicine at an 85 per cent discount. But even this cash-strapped Africa finds very expensive.

Medicines Sans Frontieres ( msf ), the Nobel Prize-winning organisation that has made access to affordable drugs an issue, has however suggested a way out. It says that countries should mass produce copies of generic drugs and calculates that if this were done the cost of the treatment for aids could be slashed to us $200 a year from us $2,250 as implied by the 85 per cent price cut offer. msf says the drug industry's offer is comparable to that of an elephant giving birth to a mouse.

Drug companies feel threatened by such suggestions. To begin with they feel it is an attempt to ride roughshod over their patents and they fear that it could encourage a flow back of cheap drugs into Western markets.

But it is time the world and international trading bodies and drug companies realise that aids is threatening to wipe out the economically most active segment of the population of South Africa. Until richer countries accept that they will pay prices high enough to cover the cost of research and poor countries pay a little above the cost of manufacture, the impasse will continue and the msf proposal is the only way out. In the case of vaccines this impasse has been breached. For example the polio vaccine costs a few cents in poor countries but few dollars in the us . Radical rethinking is definitely the need of the hour.

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