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South Africa in AIDS drug fight

AIDS activist has been charged with smuggling AIDS drugs  

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Zackie Achmat faces prison for smuggling cheap AIDS drugs from Thailand into South Africa.

"The necessity of insuring that people have access to health care is more important than protecting exorbitant profits," says Achmat, an AIDS activist and self-proclaimed smuggler.

Ironically, the South African government that charged Achmat faces similar court charges.

Thirty-nine of the world's top pharmaceutical companies are suing the government because it intends to import and produce cheaper generic AIDS drugs.

South Africa's health minister, Manto Tshabala Msimang, is putting up a legal fight.

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"We have to make sure there is accessibility and affordability of drugs in our country," the health minister says.

According to the Red Cross, AIDS will kill more people in sub-Saharan Africa over the next decade then have died in all the wars of the 20th century combined.

There have been protests in South Africa and demonstrations throughout Europe, where many of the drug companies are based.

British giant GlaxoSmithKline is the leading producer of the blue-and-white anti-retroviral capsules that 25 million Africans infected with HIV desperately need -- but that only 25,000 get.

One protest targeted workers at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) headquarters in London.

Guy Taylor, a campaigner with Globalized Assistance said: "If you want to buy drugs from companies such as GSK, it costs between $10,000 to $15,000 (7,500 to 10,000) a year per patient.

Protesters have targeted drug companies in S. Africa and Europe  

"The cheap generic drugs from Brazil or Thailand cost $200 per patient per year."

Trevor Jones, of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said: "Unless you can earn the revenues on these discoveries and these new medicines, you won't have any more.

"The money won't be available to plow back into research. So the answer is not to compulsory licence the inventions and make them locally, that doesn't solve the problem."

Brazil has been able cut by half its number of AIDS-related deaths in only two years by making its own drugs.

But it, too, faces a trade dispute. The World Trade Organization will give its ruling in June at the earliest.

"Patents are necessary and they need to be upheld, but they need to be upheld in the northern rich countries where they are most suitable and adapted," says Phil Bloomer of Oxfam.

The United States backs the pharmaceutical companies, which over the last two years have spent $246 million lobbying Congress. The United Nations backs proposals for cheaper drugs.

Journalist George Monbiot, who has investigated the drugs companies, said: "The drug companies have reduced their prices -- in some cases by quite a significant margin -- but they're are still far too expensive for the average South African farmer or shanty dweller whose weekly income is just a few pounds, if that.

"Now, these same drugs can be manufactured for a few pence, for a tiny, tiny fraction of what they are sold at -- even at the greatly reduced prices which the pharmaceutical companies are offering.

"So its not a question of this being possible, it's simply a question of them wanting to hold on to profits, which have been absolutely enormous over the last few years.

Jean Pierre Garnier, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, was not available to talk to CNN.

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Oxfam International
Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry

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