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AIDS drugs case adjourned

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A landmark court case between the South African government and the world's leading drugs companies has been adjourned until Thursday as attempts to find a settlement continue.

The pharmaceutical industry brought its action to prevent South Africa allowing imports of cheap copies of their patented anti-AIDS drugs.

A lawyer for the 39 companies said on Wednesday, following the adjournment, that discussions would continue "with a view to finding an overall settlement in this matter."

"We wish to continue certain discussions that may shorten the need for further proceedings," lawyer Fanie Cilliers told judge Bernard Ngoepe in the Pretoria High Court.

"These are discussions with a view to finding an overall settlement in this matter," he said.

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Earlier, Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association of South Africa (PMA) Chief Executive Mirryena Deeb said: "Options are being discussed amongst the participants."

The pharmaceutical industry took legal action in the wake of a government move earlier this year to enact legislation -- Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act -- allowing it to manufacture and import cut-price generic drugs for the country’s estimated 4.2 million people infected with HIV.

The government argues that the disputed act is vital to meet its constitutional duty of providing basic health care to the millions of its people denied such services under apartheid.

But the PMA says patents have to be honoured to ensure that future research into the next generation of drugs can be funded.

Of the world’s 34 million people infected with the virus, which leads to AIDS, more than 25 million live in Africa.

The Indian drug company, Cipla, has offered to supply the Pretoria Government with copies of the triple cocktail of drugs used to prolong life at a fraction of the cost charged by the companies that developed them.

It has applied for a licence to manufacture the drugs in South Africa.

Former President Nelson Mandela has accused the companies of exploitation and saying they were wrong to use court action to protect their profits.

British charity Oxfam has blasted the firms for wanting to engineer what it calls a gross violation of human rights by denying drugs to those in desperate need.

Oxfam's senior policy director Kevin Watkins said the "Vietnam of the drug industry" and a public relations disaster in the country with the largest number of people known to be living with HIV-AIDS.

A spokesman for London-based GlaxoSmithKline said on Tuesday that as far as he knew, the court case would proceed on Wednesday in Pretoria.

"As we've always said we always prefer a settlement, but as of this time the court case, as we understand it, is scheduled to go ahead tomorrow.

"It's no secret that the PMA and GlaxoSmithKline have sought to reach a settlement out of court, but I think we've been saying that for quite some time now," he added.

AIDS activist group Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which is testifying in the trial, says the drug firms are acting out of greed.

"The right to life, dignity and health supersedes the right of drug companies to profiteer. In the end it is about greed on the one hand and the right to life on the other," TAC head Zackie Achmat told reporters.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), one of several international groups helping South Africa to fight the PMA, said generic drugs were available for about a quarter of the price charged by the major pharmaceutical companies.

MSF officials said the most widely used triple-therapy cocktail cost $1,200 a year per patient to buy from the major firms, but $350 a year from Indian generic producer Cipla.

"What is at stake here is the whole question of treatment of AIDS in Africa. This court case is a benchmark and a very symbolic moment," MSF doctor Eric Goemaere said.

Reuters contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
Harvard drafts plan to get AIDS drugs to Africa
April 4, 2001
South Africa in AIDS drug fight
March 9, 2001

RELATED SITES:
South African Government
Oxfam International
HIV/AIDS Treatment
GlaxoSmithKline
Bristol-Myers Squibb Company
Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act (S. Africa)

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